Anorexia in Children – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

As a parent, the diet of your child is one of the most important things that you should keep an eye on. Your child should eat healthy food from an early age. If you feed your child well from the start, not only will she grow up to a healthy person, but she will even maintain her dietary habits throughout her life.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

When a child refuses to eat well so as to reduce weight and improve her body shape, she is said to be anorexic. This condition is common during teenage since children get conscious about their looks at this age. Physical attractiveness is given more importance rather than health, and consequently, your child starves himself to death slowly.

What Are Its Types?

Anorexia nervosa can be broadly classified into two types which affect children:

1. Restrictor

In this type, the child consciously avoids consuming calories in order to reduce her weight. She is more focused on looking attractive, so she cuts down on eating carbohydrates and fats greatly.

2. Bulimia

This type of anorexia is in direct contrast with the restrictor type, although the result is the same. The child eats more than she can manage, which is termed as ‘binge-eating’. She then purges out all the food either by vomiting or using laxatives, or sometimes by both. This results in the clearing of the intestinal tract and the stomach and leads to severe malnutrition in the child.

Which Children Are Most at the Risk of Getting Anorexia Nervosa?

In most of the cases, a girl child is more prone to get affected by this condition at a young age. However, this condition is now increasing even in boys. Anorexia is something that affects children of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups without much difference between individual groups.

A girl not eating enough

What Are the Causes of Anorexia in Kids?

There are many reasons as to why your child may be anorexic:

1. Psychological Factors

In most cases, anorexic children have been found to develop a different mentality and psychological traits compared to normal children at that age. They are mostly depressed, as a result of how ‘out of shape’ they look compared to their peers. They are always under pressure to not gain weight, which negatively affects their eating habits and results in the child being unable to eat or handle the food she has eaten.

2. Environmental Factors

Puberty triggers the release of hormones into a child’s body, which can cause a jumble of mixed emotions at this age. Consequently, the child may get too self-conscious or even depressed about her weight. In some cases, peer pressure and bullying at school can also result in the child being anorexic from a young age. If the child is an active participant in strenuous exercises or weight bearing games, it can make her anorexic too. Other common causes observed include the loss of a loved one, divorce of the parents, and even physical or sexual abuse at young ages, as they harm the psyche of the child in a great manner.

3. Genetic Factors

It has also been concluded after extensive research that children can have a genetic predisposition towards becoming anorexic. Children with a family history of colitis, arthritis, cirrhosis, and kidney failure are at a greater risk of being anorexic, compared to their healthier counterparts.

Signs of Anorexia in a Child

As a parent, you will definitely notice when your child is starting to become anorexic. Some of the symptoms she will exhibit are mentioned here, categorised into three types:

1. Physical Signs

2. Behavioural and Emotional Symptoms

  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Denial of hunger
  • Excessive exercising
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Irritability

3. Habits of Your Anorexic Child to Lose Weight

  • Frequently skipping meals
  • Not eating in public
  • Following a rigid meal plan
  • Checking body weight repeatedly
  • Eating only low-calorie or low-fat food
  • Complaining constantly about gaining weight
    A girl vomiting

How is Childhood Anorexia Diagnosed?

Although children may try to keep their efforts extremely private, parent or teachers will definitely see the symptoms of anorexia if they observe the child well. Otherwise, a child psychiatrist or a mental health expert will be able to diagnose what the child is going through, with your input as parents and by talking to the child privately.

Treatments for Anorexia Nervosa in Children

Since anorexia is more of a psychological disorder than a physical one, the treatment methods can vary greatly from child to child. The treatment also depends on the type of anorexia that has affected the child and has multiple stages to get through. The doctor may try to help the child gain necessary weight at first, especially if the child is suffering from severe malnutrition. The behavioural problems are then treated using psychotherapy and counselling, and the child is made to understand that body weight should not be given too much importance at any time. After that, healthy food habits are taught to the child, and the parents are expected to support their child through thick and thins to overcome the depression and stress that she might be feeling.

What Are the Complications of Anorexia?

The risks of anorexia in children include many disorders, like:

1. Heart Problems

Malnutrition and repeated vomiting can cause low heart rates in children and a lot of other cardiac conditions.

2. Arrhythmias

The heart rate of the child is irregular—either too fast or too slow.

3. Hypotension

It can also lead to low blood pressure in children.

4. Electrolyte balance

If the child uses laxatives or diuretics, it can result in the body losing its electrolyte balance and lead to fatal conditions like brain swelling.

5. Blood

At least one-third of anorexic children have a low count of RBCs in their body.

6. Stomach

The intestinal motility is severely affected when a child does not eat properly.

7. Kidney

Anorexic children may either drink too much fluid, or too less, both the conditions are extremely harmful and result in electrolyte abnormalities or kidney stones respectively.

8. Endocrine

Growth hormone levels also reduce with anorexia, and affected children might stop menstruating because of this condition.

9. Skeletal

Bone density decreases with anorexia, and the child is at a higher risk of fractures compared to her counterparts.

How Can Anorexia Be Prevented?

There are no concrete methods for preventing anorexia in children, but early intervention can work wonders in terms of improving the health condition of your child. You need to look for symptoms of anorexia in young children and get the help of medical professionals if you have the slightest doubts.

Anorexia is a psychological disorder that can affect the health of your child. You can talk to your child about eating disorders, but you have to get the help of qualified professionals if there is no improvement.

Also Read: Aggression in Children – Reasons and Tips to Handle It