Every parent knows children may sometimes tend to form unhealthy eating habits, such as irregular mealtimes, eating junk food and dieting when they reach puberty. Although this can cause a fuss at dinner time, usually it is nothing to be alarmed about. However, eating disorders in children certainly is something to be concerned about and, should this be the case, it is important to find treatment and support as soon as possible.
As a starting point, it is important to understand that eating disorders are mental health conditions; eating disorders in children are very different to the everyday challenges most of us are faced with through many stages of a child’s natural development. Eating disorders comprise not just of unhealthy habits but also obsessive eating behaviours which include over or under eating, obsessively monitoring calories or weight gain, binge eating, controlling which foods are ingested, and purging (making yourself sick) after eating.
If you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits, there are plenty of clinics offering treatment for eating disorders in and around Essex and across the UK.
Can my child develop an eating disorder?
Anyone can develop an eating disorder; however, it is still recognised as being most prevalent in those aged 13-17 and is more likely to affect girls than boys. These statistics are constantly changing with many resources showing that, in certain regions, the age limit is moving between 9 and 13 instead. This might be related to puberty beginning earlier and increased access to social media.
The most common eating disorders are Binge Eating Disorder, in which a person loses control of their eating, binges on large amounts of food and then feels overwhelming guilt; and disorders which have a mixture of symptoms. Yet, the most heavily treated in hospitals are anorexia and bulimia.
If you notice that your child is avoiding social situations involving food, obsessing about their weight, or eating routines or having digestive problems, these could be signs of an eating disorder. Other indications include getting cold easily, unusually high or low weight, missed periods and changes in mood.
Social media and the shame of being yourself
We are living in an era where technology provides more comfort for teenagers than face-to-face interaction. Children will often look to apps and social media for information and be drawn in by the appearance of people online without physically seeing the person behind the post.
According to Banbury-based eating disorders specialist Dimitra Theofili, social media create unrealistic expectations, which can lead to low body confidence and promote dramatic tactics to change a teenager’s look to fit this `perfect` appearance.
The practitioner said:
Instagram and Snapchat seem to be the chosen platforms because of the ability to alter the way the face looks with the use of filters, some which are actually named “perfect face”. They are quite literally suggesting that the user’s face is not perfect; how is this meant to make a 13-year-old feel about themselves?
The dangers of the World Wide Web
In addition to unrealistic body expectations, the internet allows minors access to unproven, false and fad diets which are advertised online, many of which encourage cutting out important nutrients, like carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are a slow energy-releasing food which is vital for vigour. If a child cuts out carbs, the blood sugar levels in their body will be impacted, affecting the brain’s serotonin volume. Because of the strong gut-brain connection, this alters their levels of well-being and feelings of happiness, which, in some cases, can lead to mental health issues and fatigue.
There are also an array of unlicensed medications and exercising apps online. Although exercise can be a great influence on both body and mind, there is a chance for children to become obsessed with the targets and images of fitness models, pushing them into an unhealthy obsession to replicate their figures. Many adults also fall into the trap of fitness obsession but doing too much exercise can be as bad as doing none at all. For young people who are still developing too much exercise can also be damaging to their physical development.
Although the internet provides an array of useful tools, it is important for children to be educated on what constitutes a healthy lifestyle and what is fabricated online versus what is real.
How to speak to children about their eating
When it comes to advice, teenagers frequently seem as though they totally disregard their parent’s opinions. So, if you suspect your child has an eating disorder, it is essential to let them know you appreciate how they feel and to try and avoid conflict which will only serve to push your child further away.
Experts in eating disorders in children suggest making it a two-way, respectful conversation, asking them questions and finding out how they are feeling, rather than lecturing.
It is always valuable to educate children on the gravity of their disorder, the side-effects they cause and the benefits of healthy eating habits, finding the balance between a friendly chat and letting them know the topic is serious.
To prevent your child from feeling as if he or she is in trouble and you are just a disapproving adult, it is best to speak in a place where you both feel comfortable, and both have time free to talk openly.
It may be uncomfortable having this conversation and being patient while they open up, but letting your child know you understand and are there to help them get better will encourage them to trust your advice, be honest about any unhealthy eating habits, and to seek help if they are struggling with their image.
Treatment for children with eating disorders
Eating disorders in children can be treated either privately or through the NHS.
Unfortunately, a rise in eating disorders and other mental health conditions in children, together with cuts in government spending in these areas AND the current pandemic, has caused the NHS to backlog helping children in need of support.
The latest statistics reveal that 1 in 4 children have waited for an average of 4-12 weeks for treatment for eating disorders since the third quarter, with some left without aid for longer.
Luckily, private support is fully available in Essex and can be funded through private insurance in certain clinics.
Several hotlines and clinics can welcome your child and help them heal from an eating disorder, be it Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, or any other type of eating disorder.
Further information and resources relating to eating disorders in children:
BEAT – UK’s leading eating disorders resource: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
The NHS infopoint on ED: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/
A specialist’s review on kids with eating disorders and how they find treatment during the Covid-19 pandemic: https://www.pharmiweb.com/press-release/2020-11-12/kids-with-eating-disorders-put-to-one-side-because-of-covid-experts-warn
Mother and daughter image by edsavi30 from Pixabay
Bulimia image by Christian Dorn from Pixabay