Children, teens and young adults face many pressures as they grow up, including pressures to be “cool” and to fit in. One prevalent pressure, especially for adolescents, is the pressure to be thin or to have a specific body type promoted in popular culture and the media. This may lead to dieting or other restrictive food “rules,” which can in turn lead to an eating disorder.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are conditions in which a person engages in abnormal and harmful patterns of eating. This may include:
- Anorexia nervosa – An eating disorder in which a person obsesses about losing weight and refuses to eat, or eats a significantly less amount of food to sustain their daily health
- Binge eating – An eating disorder in which a person eats a large amount of food in a short period of time
- Bulimia – An eating disorder in which a person will binge a large amount of food and then force themselves to vomit and purge all the food they’ve eaten
It’s important to recognize that although eating disorders are commonly assumed to affect mostly adolescent girls, boys and children of all ages can struggle with eating disorders.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
The symptoms of eating disorders differ depending on which eating disorder a person has, but there are a few key things to look for across all types of eating disorders:
- An extreme focus on personal appearance and weight that impacts aspects of daily life
- Fear, panic, and anxiety about the thought of gaining weight
- Low body weight, which may also lead to:
- Inability to keep a normal body temperature (may often feel cold)
- Dehydration and constipation
- Constant fatigue
- Behavioral issues (anxiety, irritability)
- Females may lose their regular menstrual cycle due to low body weight
- Obsession with exercise
- A disordered body image (may think and say that are overweight when they are actually underweight)
A person with an eating disorder may also prefer to eat in private, or demand to always prepare their own food. You may also notice strange eating habits, like hoarding food, or notice that trips to the bathroom always occur right after eating.
How are Eating Disorders Treated?
To get a child or teenager treated for an eating disorder, early detection is key. By intervening early, not only can you help prevent disordered eating habits and negative thoughts from progressing, you can help prevent the health complications that arise from eating disorders.
Treatment begins with an evaluation from a licensed health professional. From there, they will work with the child or teen and their family to determine the best treatment plan. It’s important to know that overcoming an eating disorder is not an immediate process; it takes time to recognize a problem, embrace the need to for change, and replace disordered eating habits and thoughts with new, healthy ones. It’s also important to understand that eating disorders can often accompany other behavioral health issues, such as depression and anxiety. These conditions may have different treatment components separate from that of an eating disorder, which your child’s provider will discuss in detail with you.
The good news is that preventing eating disorders can start early and at home. Avoid making food or physical activity a part of punishment or reward for your child. You can also impact the way a child thinks about health, body image and fitness by the way you talk with them about these things. For example, encourage physical activity as something that will help them grow up strong and healthy and allow their body to do all the wonderful things it’s meant to do, not to achieve an ideal body type or to lose weight. Food should be viewed as healthy fuel for our bodies, not as something to be feared or judged.