Written by: Cally Worden
Eating disorders are on the rise in the UK and children are not immune to their often devastating effects. There is, rightly, much focus on childhood obesity in the media at the moment. But at the other end of the spectrum the number of young people slowly starving themselves is also on the rise. Each condition is as dangerous as the other. Knowing how to recognise the warning signs in your child could enable you to help them address the issues behind their behaviour and, in extreme cases, literally help you to save their life
The Main Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is characterised by a fundamental change in eating habits that can ultimately lead to life-threatening health issues. The main types of eating disorder are:
- Binge-Eating – gorging on food, with no purging afterwards.
- Anorexia – a refusal to eat sufficient calories for a healthy existence, driven by a deep and irrational fear of becoming fat.
- Bulimia – gorging on food that is followed by forced purging, such as making yourself sick, or using laxatives to ‘flush’ the body out.
Who is Most Likely to Suffer?
Young people of all ages are susceptible to eating disorders. Hospital admissions figures in the UK suggest that the majority of cases are children in the teenage years but also shockingly reveal that children under five have also been admitted for treatment for eating disorders.
In young people an overlap of these disorders is common, with the child switching from one form of disorder to another. Girls are more susceptible than boys to all these disorders, with an estimated 90% of childhood anorexics and bulimics being female. Boys are instead more likely to binge eat, accounting for an estimated 35% of all childhood cases of this disorder.
What are the main Causes?
Doctors have so far failed to pin down any single causal factor for eating disorders. Each case is complex, with biological, social, and behavioural factors thought to each play a part. The media portrayal of body imagery seems currently to favour bodies that are often grossly underweight. Young people are particularly vulnerable to such images, taking them as something to aspire to. Add into this mix the general uncertainty of puberty and you have young people who are often:
- low in self-esteem
- fearful of becoming overweight
- feeling helpless in other areas of life
At a simplistic level eating disorders offer a form of control that can feel liberating to a child who is feeling lost in the world or in their emotional development. It is often the case that children with eating disorders are also found to have other issues, such as depression and anxiety disorders, and may have problems with substance abuse.
What to Look Out For
Spotting an eating disorder in a child can be difficult. The nature of the condition is secretive, and kids love to hide things from adults at the best of times. Sadly there are many internet sites designed to encourage children to actively engage in an eating disorder. Try to monitor the online surfing your child is doing and beware of any secretive behaviour around the use of the internet that may suggest your child is communicating online with those who would lead them to harm.¬† Any child suffering from an eating disorder will need help to recover, both emotionally and physically. The signs of each disorder have many similarities and can be summarised as follows.
- over-eating at meals, and gorging between meals
- eating lots of unhealthy foods, often in secret
- refusing to exercise or be active
- being on a personal downer, with low self-esteem and body image
- staying in when friends are going out
- disinterest in clothes or personal appearance
- hoarding of food
- constantly dieting but actually putting on weight
- dieting even though the child is already thin
- exercising in a compulsive or excessive manner
- showing an unusual interest in food
- exhibiting strange eating habits, such as small meals, avoiding meals altogether and eating in secret or alone
- losing weight rapidly and hiding it behind baggy clothes
- bingeing in large portions of food
- spending time in the bathroom after meals
- scarring on knuckles from induction of vomiting by forcing fingers down the throat
- exercising excessively
- being moody and sad
- abusing laxatives and other drugs
- overemphasising physical appearance
- using mouthwash or mints excessively to mask the smell of vomit on the breath
What you Can Do
This will depend on the age of your child. All forms of eating disorders respond well to therapy, if the patient is able and willing to engage in the process. If weight loss or gain has begun to affect the physical health of your child then hospitalisation may be necessary for a period of time. Antidepressants may be prescribed in all cases depending on need, and behavioural and group therapies have also been found to be useful.
With very young children it is possible to exert some control over how much food they have access to, and when and where they eat. This is more difficult as children grow and become more independent. Establishing healthy patterns of eating from a young age can help you to spot problems early on. Talking to you child is perhaps the first and most important stage of their recovery. Thereafter it is vital you seek professional help.