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How to Know if Your Child has an Eating Disorder

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How to Know if Your Child has an Eating Disorder

Nov 21, 2022

The rate of eating disorders among children under 12 has increased by 119% since 2020. Anorexia is the third most common chronic disorder among kids, behind asthma and obesity. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, explains what could be causing this increase and how to identify the most common red flags of potential eating disorders. She also talks about what steps can be taken to help your child get the care they need.

Episode Transcript

Eating disorders have been around for a very long time, but they have skyrocketed in recent years. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency room visits for mental health issues have increased at an alarming rate for kids aged 5 and up just since 2020. This is not just for anxiety and depression, but it seems that eating disorders are also increasing, especially among teen girls.

Why Eating Disorders are Increasing in Children

Why? Researchers who are studying the trends think that lack of structure in the daily routines of teens, emotional distress, and even fluctuations in whether families had food available or not, all contributed to the increase.

Eating disorders can develop at any time, but we see it most often in teens and more likely to be girls than boys. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that the rate of eating disorders has risen by 119% in kids under 12 just in the last few years, and anorexia is now the third most common chronic illness in teens only behind asthma and obesity.

Kids who are predisposed to anxiety, such as having a strong family history of anxiety or depression, seem to be more prone to eating disorders. Some clinical studies by psychologists also indicate that teens who spend more time on social media may be more at risk because they can exacerbate poor body image and constantly bombard kids with diet trends, and those can trigger eating disorders.

Teens with eating disorders often compare their bodies to peers and can feel bad about themselves if they don't have what they believe to be the perfect body.

How to Know if Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

So what are some signs to look out for if you think that your child may be at risk for an eating disorder? Well, look for behavioral changes. Kids, when they are struggling with body image issues, will often isolate themselves, withdrawal from social activities or seem overly sad or angry.

Some big behavior changes that parents should watch out for according to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders is hiding food, eating in secret, starting a new diet, obsessing over physical activity, or going to the bathroom every time after eating a meal.

Next Steps if You Think Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

The first step, if you think your child might have an eating disorder, is to make an appointment with your child's pediatrician. We can check their height, weight, and body mass index and look for any alarming trends. If there are concerns, we can do labs and possibly an EKG.

If the labs and EKG are reassuring, then the next step is to get a psychiatrist involved. If the labs or EKG are not okay, then your child may be admitted to the hospital to medically stabilize them while they start working on treatment options for their eating disorder.

A psychiatrist needs to be involved because these are brain-based illnesses with biological, psychological, and social components, not just something your child chooses to do usually.

Parents need to educate themselves too. Some good resources are the National Eating Disorder Association, Project HEAL, and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, also FEAST.

Your child needs their feelings and struggles supported, and with the stigma of shame around eating disorders that can make the problem worse. This is a disease that affects entire families. There is help out there. Your pediatrician is the first place to start. But be aware this is not something your pediatrician will manage. It involves a lot of therapy and work with a mental health provider.