Experts do not have a definitive answer regarding precisely what causes eating disorders in children. They do, however, agree that there are things parents can do to catch the problem early. Informed parents know how to spot the signs of distress and can act early to intervene before an eating disorder has time to take root. Listed below are a few flags which could signal that your child is becoming disordered in his/her relationship with food.
1. The first and most obvious flag would be a noticeable weight change. Healthy children grow, develop and gain weight into their third decade of life. So, when a child is not regularly gaining weight this could be a sign that something is amiss. Children who take in insufficient calories during their pre-teen years may be slow in developing secondary sex traits. This means that failure to mature physically merits investigation as well.
2. Obsession with size and weight or with food portions and calories is another red flag. Parents should take notice when a child starts cutting his/her food into tiny bites, when they use more condiments but eat less actual food or when solid foods are replaced with more beverages. If a child insists on reading food labels this could also point to anxiety about food and calories. Finally, when a child suddenly eliminates an entire food category, such as starches or meats, this could be the result of an eating disorder. Kids who say they want to become vegetarian or who self-diagnose as glucose intolerant may be using a ploy to hide their disordered eating.
3. Stress and anxiety are closely associated with anorexia nervosa. If you notice that your child seems more anxious and then begins to show weight loss or even if weight changes are coupled with an increase in your child’s anxiety level, this warrants parental attention.
4. Children who excuse themselves from mealtimes and who show no interest in food-related activities may be sending out a signal that an eating disorder is present. Kids may enjoy going grocery shopping and even help prepare meals, but do not seem to relish the act of eating when they are forming an unhealthy food relationship. Be alert to a child’s insistence on preparing their own meals separately. In fact, any form of social withdrawal can be a symptom of an eating disorder.
5. If your child becomes fixated on exercise, this could be a warning sign. Children may attempt to compensate for the calories they consume by over-exercising. Kids who are inflexible about exercise regimens and who spend inordinate attention on exercise may actually be looking for a weight control mechanism.
Parents often blame themselves whenever something goes wrong in their child’s life. The blame game is unproductive. Rather than sink into self-blame, loving parents should be aware of their child’s behaviors and attitudes and do all they can to engage their children in healing choices.