Before we are parents, we can’t imagine a time when we would be so concerned about what someone else is eating. After having children, that seems to be our major worry. Is my newborn eating enough? Is my toddler healthy if they eat nothing but green beans? Is it okay if my kindergartner eats four Granny Smith apples each day?
While most of this works itself out, parents may again become concerned about eating habits when children enter adolescence and their teen years, especially if kids suddenly seem worried about calories, exercise and weight gain.
At Bay Street Pediatrics, we know eating disorders are serious, sometimes fatal illnesses that can severely impact a child’s health. In fact, eating disorders are the leading cause of death from non-drug related mental illness. Common eating disorders include binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
- Over 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder
- 12- to 25-year-olds make up 95% of these people
- 26% of people with an eating disorder will attempt suicide
- Over 10,000 people with eating disorders die annually
- Girls make up about 69% of those with eating disorders and boys about 31%
You may have noticed some behaviors and physical changes in your child are confusing. Perhaps your child who used to love close-fitting clothes has suddenly started wearing huge sweatshirts and sweatpants. You may think that because wearing big clothes would make them feel and look “fatter,” these wardrobe choices wouldn’t indicate an eating disorder. In reality, baggy clothes which hide the weight loss are often an initial sign of disordered eating.
Behavioral changes begin before any severe physical changes. Knowing these initial signs and getting a prompt diagnosis and intervention is vital to a good recovery.
- Wears baggy clothes to hide the weight loss
- Becomes isolated from friends and hides away from family when in the house
- Avoids occasions where food is offered such as parties or sleep-overs
- Mood swings, fatigue or fainting
- Food “jags”, such as eating only lettuce or only peanut butter, for example
- Exhibits restlessness, inability to sit still, nervous energy
- Pushes food around the plate and makes excuses for not eating
- Has rituals around food
- Is preoccupied with calories or weight, or guilt about food or eating
- Has an excessive and compulsive exercise routine
- Makes frequent trips to the bathroom, most often after eating
The more weight a child loses, the more severe the physical and mental illnesses becomes, making it exceedingly difficult to recover. These physical signs mean your child needs immediate medical intervention:
- Noticeable weight changes
- Difficulty concentrating and sleeping
- Bad breath, discolored teeth or other dental problems usually caused by vomiting
- Often cold, especially cold hands
- Brittle hair and nails
What to do if you suspect your child has an eating disorder
The faster your child gets appropriate professional help, the more likely they are to recover.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) recommend parents first talk openly and kindly with their child to gather facts. Typically, the child will deny they are losing weight or have an eating disorder but will not change dangerous eating habits. It is important not to assign blame because there is a great deal of shame and low self-esteem involved in acknowledging an eating disorder.
When you suspect your child has an eating disorder, get professional help immediately. Do not wait. “At home” remedies and advice from well-meaning friends and family typically just delay proper professional care of this complex psychological illness and then make recovery much more difficult.
If you see any behaviors that indicate your child could have an eating disorder, call Bay Street Pediatrics at 203-227-3674 or request an appointment immediately. We will make an evaluation and, when needed, refer your child to specialists quickly. With proper, consistent and compassionate medical care and support at home, there is a great deal of hope for children with eating disorders.