Eating Disorders in Children

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A child not eating his food

The commonness of eating disorders in children is a concerning trend and children of all age groups can get affected by eating disorders. Development of eating disorders in young children may be particularly alarming for the far-reaching impact it can have on their growth and health. Moreover, in the case of young children, the situation can quickly get out of hand causing possible permanent developmental damage or fatal results. Fortunately, there are many treatments available which can help recover a child from eating disorders.

What are Eating Disorders?

A little boy forced to eat

Eating disorders can be any of the mental and emotional disorders like bulimia, anorexia nervosa marked by abnormal troubles in eating behaviours. Eating disorders in kids should not be confused with kids being fussy or picky about what they eat. A child may be diagnosed to have an eating disorder if he develops an unhealthy attitude towards food which can be detrimental for his health and general well-being.

What are the Types of Eating Disorder in Children?

The common types of eating disorders established in children are:

1. Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a condition in which a kid does not eat enough food due to an irrational and intense fear of gaining too much weight. The kid can begin to imagine that he is too fat even though he may be thin. He may resort to extreme dieting, exercising or force himself to puke after eating food.

2. Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a disorder in which a kid starts to binge or gorge on food excessively. He may then eject the food by vomiting or by using laxatives to avoid weight gain.

3. Binge Eating

Binge eating disorder in children includes out of control eating due to which a kid may consume large amounts of food in a short span of time to the point of feeling uncomfortably full. However, binge eaters do not adopt purging and may end up becoming obese or overweight.

4. Pica

Kids with pica eating disorder develop a desire for chewing materials which have no nutritive value like paint, clay, soil, paper, ice. They start to enjoy the textures of certain nonfood items which is often a coping mechanism for psychological issues.

5. Rumination Disorder

This is disorder where a kid repeatedly brings back partially digested food and re-chews it before swallowing it again though occasionally he may spit it out as well. Rumination syndrome is usually a subconscious behaviour rather than a conscious act.

6. Avoidant or Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder involves eating selective food items based on food’s smell, taste, appearance, texture, presentation or brand.

What Causes Eating Disorders in Children?

The cause of the occurrence of eating disorders in children is not clear. But more often than not eating disorders can be linked to underlying emotions. The child may be experiencing difficulty in handling various social, developmental, emotional issues like a bully, teasing, stress which may lead to an eating disorder. Variations in behaviour regarding food may be a child’s way of feeling in some control over the various happenings in his life. Children with low self-esteem, anxiety disorders, substance abuse are also at a greater risk of developing eating disorders.

Moreover, the kind of impact social media has on young impressionable kids along with celebrity trends and pop culture children often feel pressurised and may take to senseless dieting or develop a confused perception of what looks good.

Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children

Some of the signs and symptoms of child eating disorders can be:

1. Weight loss

A child losing weight at a progressive rate is a sign that something is not He may try to hide the rapid weight loss with loose clothing.

2. Social withdrawal

A child may show reluctance to participate in social activities and seem to withdraw in a shell.

3. Excessive exercising

A kid may take up needless exercising despite being dangerously thin.

4. Strange eating habits

A kid may develop unusual eating patterns like avoiding meals, monitoring every single bite, eating secretly, eating only selective food items in small measures.

5. Extreme dieting

A child may turn to unwarranted dieting despite being emaciated.

6. Body image concerns

A child may become very self-critical owing to distorted body image.

7. Hoarding or hiding food

In case a child starts buying or storing large amounts of food there is a possibility he might be hiding to binge and purge later.

8.Personality change

A child may regularly exhibit emotions like anger, irritability, sadness, anxiety for no apparent reasons or show hyperactivity like leg jiggling, difficulty in sitting still.

Harmful Effects of Eating Disorders in Kids

Kids need a balanced and nutritious diet for their proper growth and development. Eating disorders in kids can give rise to many health problems. In case a kid does not eat properly in his growing phase he is likely to have stunted growth which may comprise his height. Eating insufficient food may harm the major organs like the heart, brain, and kidneys. A kid with poor eating habits can suffer from low blood pressure, reduced pulse rate, irregular heartbeat and thinning of bones and hair. Lack of adequate nutrition in kids can lead to electrolyte imbalance, sensitivity to cold, frequent headaches, lack of concentration, dizziness.

Chronic vomiting can cause stomach acids to damage the tooth enamel, inflame the oesophagus and enlarge salivary glands in the mouth. Eating disorders in kids can also negatively impact their personality by bringing persistent mood swings, increased irritability, depression. Continued eating disorder in kids may generate serious complications that can also prove fatal.

How is an Eating Disorder Diagnosed in Children?

Eating disorders in toddlers may be tough to diagnose because the nutritional needs, body weight, and growth spurts can vary for different kids. The key to effective treatment is early detection of the signs of an eating disorder in a kid. In case of parents having even the slightest doubt regarding their kid suffering from an eating disorder they should refer to a doctor right away who may suitably diagnose the problem upon examination. The doctor may evaluate the family history regarding any mental or eating disorder, cases of obesity or depression within the family. He may further assess the nutritional and mental state of the kid and conduct a physical examination to check his weight, height, pulse, blood pressure, changes in hair and skin. He may also recommend a few laboratory tests like a urinalysis and blood count.

How is an Eating Disorder Treated?

Treatment of eating disorder may include:

1. Psychological Treatment

Psychological treatment mainly refers to Family-Based Treatment (FBT) which is an intensive outpatient dealing wherein the kid is not required to stay in a hospital. FBT consists of educating and motivating the parents to become proactive by taking positive steps to regulate their child’s behaviour and eating habits. The primary aim of treatment is to restore normal eating habits and healthy body weight of the child.

Psychological treatment may also include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which concentrates on finding and handling the various behavioural issues and feeding disturbances of the child that result from purging and binging behaviours. CBT involves private and personal interactions with the kid.

2. Medical Treatment

Early childhood eating disorders can lead to several health issues in a kid like low bone density, slow growth, abnormal blood pressure, heart problems. A child diagnosed with an eating disorder may have to schedule regular appointments with the doctor for treatment and tests. Your doctor may also prescribe some antidepressant medicines for the kid in case of severe depression. A kid with severe health complications may also have to hospitalised and administered intravenous feeding.

3. Nutritional Consultation

The medical specialist team managing your kid’s treatment may refer to a dietitian for nutritional consultation if required. The dietitian may chalk out an appropriate nourishing diet for the child for his healthy growth.

How to Prevent Eating Disorders in Kids?

Here are some useful tips which may help you prevent an eating disorder in kids:

  • Try to create a healthy attitude towards eating all types of nutritious food in the house by personal demonstration.
  • Refrain from labelling food items as bad, fattening as this can generate feelings of shame and guilt in kids when they happen to eat them.
  • Avoid talks of dieting, selective eating and body imaging in the house lest they cast an unfavourable impression on the young minds.
  • Resist from using food as punishment, bribe or rewards.
  • Ensure that the family sits down and have the meals together. Planned family mealtimes provide kids with a good structure and may help them to appreciate the significance of eating well.
  • Try and establish open communication in the house by encouraging your kid to express himself freely to prevent suppression of emotions which can cause childhood eating problems.
  • Don’t be critical and judgemental of your child’s feelings, behaviours, physical appearance, performance and grades. Instead, boost his self-confidence and self-esteem by acceptance.
  • Encourage your child to celebrate diversity and model acceptance of diverse appearances, body sizes and shapes.
  • It is never a good idea to compare your kid with other kids as it may trigger negative feelings in your child.
  • Motivate your kid to take up sports and outdoor activities for sound mental and physical development.

It can be quite distressing for parents to realise that their child has developed an eating disorder. But by employing the help of a therapist, nutritionist along with the support from family and friends a kid with eating disorders can get better.

Also Read:

Stomach Pain in Children
Stomach Pain Home Remedies for Toddlers
Constipation in Kids

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