Identifying Eating Disorders in Young Children: What Can You Do As A Parent?

If you’ve read some of my recent blogs, you are probably somewhat familiar with my journey and years of struggling with an eating disorder. Most of those blogs focus on my young adult years, but these past few weeks, I’ve been approached by several moms who are concerned about their kids developing disordered eating habits or worrying that their young child might already have a serious eating disorder.

 

As a mother of three girls and as an eating disorder therapist, I’m acutely aware that the average age for children developing eating disorders has dropped from 12 to 7 in recent times. That figure sounds crazy even to me, but I know firsthand how real it is.

 

I was recently approached by a frantic mother whose 7-year-old daughter had been told by her grandfather that she shouldn’t eat the whole bagel because it would make her fat. This mom was so upset because she said she worked so hard to instill healthy eating habits in the house and avoided using the word “fat” or obsessing over body image. However, that one comment had made her daughter obsessed with the idea that she was fat and she started to use language like, “I feel really fat today.”

 

This brings up several things that parents should be aware of. First, we may think of eating disorders as something that only affects teenagers and young adults but it can actually affect children of any age — both boys and girls. Second, it’s important to realize that as a parent, we aren’t the only voice our children hear. They are susceptible to comments from family members, friends, teachers, television, and any other voice they deem trustworthy. Of course it’s essential that you model healthy eating habits and refrain from talking about your own weight or obsessing over diets around your children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t getting conflicting information from somewhere else. So it’s not enough to establish healthy eating habits in your home because, let’s face it, we can’t guard kids from the outside world all the time.

 

If you hear your child make a comment about being “fat,” it’s important to ask yourself what this evokes in you as a parent. How do you feel when your child talks about this topic? This will establish awareness, which will help you best deal with the issue. Dismissing it or not acknowledging your own reaction to this as a parent will only further the problem.

 

When responding to your child, you want to give them your full attention. Make eye contact, but speak in a regular voice. While it’s not something that you want to dismiss, you also want to avoid blowing a comment out of proportion or giving it too much attention.

 

So what’s a good response to a child who says they feel fat? Start by asking a follow-up question. “When you say you feel fat, what do you mean? What are you actually feeling? Fat is not an emotion or a physical feeling so use your words to help me understand what you mean by that.” Getting your child to open up about their true feelings is an important first step. From there the conversation can continue.

 

Talk to your child about negative self-talk and steer them away from it. Children will often compare themselves to other children (“I’m heavier than my friends at school”) or make comments regarding how their clothes look on them (“I shouldn’t eat this because my shirt is too tight”). One study found that 81% of 10 year olds are “afraid of being fat,” and they are taking the issue into their own tiny hands by dieting, which can often lead to eating disorders. Additionally, with the focus on childhood obesity in this country, the way that food and weight gain are talked about in school and at home can trigger issues. We get into the idea of food and weight being good vs. bad and the fear that instills can be very powerful. I found a good explanation of this from a trusted online resource: “By temperament, most of the children at risk for anorexia are often focused on doing the right thing and doing it perfectly. They focus on the details (don’t eat bad foods) and miss the big picture (balanced diet and health).”

 

It’s also important to be aware of any major changes in your home life, as children who are experiencing anxiety, family problems, or any kind of issues with peers will sometimes turn to unhealthy eating habits as a way of gaining control in their lives.

 

Finally, the strongest advice I can give you is this: If you think you need to consult with a specialist, don’t hesitate. When problems are picked up on at a younger age it’s much easier to work through them then when unhealthy habits and thought patterns have become ingrained.

 

Being a parent is challenging and it doesn’t come with a guide. Often the issues facing your kids are much different than the ones you may have faced growing up. A good first step is to stay close to your kids and keep the dialogue open. As a parent, you want to be able to help your child but remember that it’s also OK to ask for help.

 

If you think your child might be struggling with eating disorders or body image issues, asking questions is a great first step. LW Wellness Network can provide support, counseling, and guidance for families working through these types of problems. We know that every situation is different because every child is different. Visit us at: www.lwwellness.com and on facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/RecoveringTogetherEatingDisorderSupport/. Another wonderful resource is the “Parent Toolkit” from NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association). You can find this at: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/Toolkits/ParentToolkit.pdf.

I’d love to hear from other mothers with any questions, comments, or fears you might have regarding your children and establishing healthy eating habits so comment on the blog or reach out on our Facebook page!

If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, contact me or book an appointment with me. I look forward to hearing from you

2 replies
  1. Meghann
    Meghann says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I started dieting at 9 and became bulimic at 13. I am 38 now, and still dealing with anorexia and binge eating. I have 3 little boys and pray that my issues do not rub off on them. I love your advice about challenging kids’ negative body comments – it is right on! “Fat is not a feeling” is a wonderful phrase!

    Reply

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