Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Young Children and Eating Disorders

Today I was reading an article about a ten year old child who had almost died of Anorexia.  Ten years old!   To think that our society is so preoccupied with body image that preteen children could actually starve themselves to death.  The struggle this mother and father went through trying to save their child's life was heartbreaking.  The young girl, Shelia, had been in gymnastics and when she dropped out she started gaining weight - just a pound or two at first.   But that pound or two began to bother Sheila. "I'd been around all these older girls at the gym who were always saying things like 'Oh, I'm so fat,' and I started to worry that once I quit gymnastics, I would get fat, too," Sheila, now 13, remembers.

Over the next six months, worry gradually turned into obsession as she cut out sweets and chips, then dairy and meat and finally everything but salad.  She began exercising excessively.  Her mom felt there was a problem when she began to drop weight, but a wellness checkup showed that she was still within her normal weight range and was beginning to show early signs of puberty - signs that a pediatrician would normally see in a girl her age.  The pediatrician explained to her about the importance of eating from all the food groups and Shelia said she understood.

But she continued losing weight.  A rush trip to the doctor revealed that Sheila had lost 17 pounds -- almost a quarter of her body weight -- in the six weeks since her well-child visit. Her body temperature was only 94 degrees, her heart rate was low and she was severely dehydrated. With hospitalization and psychiatric help, this child finally overcame the illness but not without consequences.  Anorexia in a child this age can permanently affect their development and can often damage vital organs even when the eating disorder is eventually successfully treated.

This story struck a sympathetic chord with me.  Our family suffered a terrible loss almost twenty years ago when our eighteen year old niece died of complications of Anorexia two weeks before she would have graduated from high school.  Our lives are full of "what if's".  What if we had not complimented her on her weight loss when she started losing weight after years of being slightly overweight?  What if there had been earlier intervention?  The world of internet and social media has brought more attention to this disease and people are more aware of it now than twenty years ago.  They know what to look for.  Here is a link to some of the early warning signs of eating disorders:

 How can I tell if my child might have an eating disorder?
Look for these behaviors, signs and symptoms:
  • Eating tiny portions or refusing to eat
  • Intense fear of being fat
  • Distorted body image girl staring at plate
  • Strenuous exercising (for more than an hour)
  • Hoarding and hiding food
  • Eating in secret
  • Disappearing after eating—often to the bathroom
  • Large changes in weight, both up and down
  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Hiding weight loss by wearing bulky clothes
  • Little concern over extreme weight loss 
  • Obsessive reading food labels for calorie/fat content of food. 
  • Stomach cramps
  • Menstrual irregularities—missing periods
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Sleep problems
  • Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (from sticking finger down throat to cause vomiting)
  • Dry skin
  • Puffy face
  • Fine hair on body
  • Thinning of hair on head, dry and brittle hair
  • Cavities, or discoloration of teeth, from vomiting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Yellow skin
  • Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet
If your child has some of these signs, you should bring them to the doctor right away.  Your doctor can rule out diseases that can appear to be eating disorders.  If an eating disorder is not treated, it can become life threatening.

 We can set examples for healthy eating.   Experts recommend teaching by doing. Stay away from using food as a punishment or reward - this sets up an unhealthy relationship with food.  Also, don't label foods as "good foods" or "bad foods" since this might lead to bingeing.

Children observe and follow us.  Parents should set an example and be careful not to obsess over food or their own weight in front of their children.

But at the end of the day, it is not the fault of the parent if a child has an eating disorder.  Anorexia and bulimia are serious mental disorders and as with all mental illnesses should be treated by professionals.

When I read this, I thought of my own ten year old granddaughter and her healthy little developing body.  We take our children's health for granted.  I feel the pain and heartbreak of mothers dealing with their child's illnesses of any kind, but one that seems that it should be so easy to fix - one where you think just eating normal amounts of food would cure it!  But it doesn't work that way, does it?  But it is an illness that can be fixed, - early intervention helps.


  1. A very thought provoking post Glenda. I had problems with my own daughters eating habits when she was in her mid-teens ... a sudden dramatic lose of weight and everyone complimenting her etc. Maybe I was a little obsessive but I knew that it wasn't normal and had her down to the professionals, it was such a difficult time for all of us. Now she is a healthy normal weight and very sensible about her food.

    1. I don't think we can be too obsessive about our children's health. If a parent is concerned, a good idea would be to go back and look at photos of your child 6 months or a year ago. When you're with your child everyday, you sometimes don't notice their weight loss until it reaches a point that it's serious. Some parents don't want to believe that this is happening to their child, so they push it aside. The two young girls I know who have suffered from Anorexia have been extremely intelligent kids. These are the kids that are cunning enough to hide their eating habits so well that it sneaks up on their parents. Heather was able to beat the disease. Darlene wasn't.

  2. Hi Glenda. I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your niece all those years ago, at such a young age. How heartbreaking for all your family. Such a waste of a young life. This was, indeed, a thought provoking post. Young people these days are under such pressure about their looks, and it really is terrible.


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