As parents, our very first worries center around food. Is our newborn baby eating enough? Too much? What is the right amount anyway?! These concerns generally abate as our kids get older; almost always parents see their children eating just as they should – and thriving – within several months.
However, when our children enter the pre-teen and teen years, parents may again become concerned about eating habits, especially if kids seem suddenly obsessed with calories, exercise and weight gain.
At New Canaan Pediatrics, we know eating disorders are serious and sometimes fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s health. Obsessions with food, body weight, and shape may signal an eating disorder. Common eating disorders include binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders are the leading cause of death from non-drug related mental illness.
- More than 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder
- 95% of these people are between 12 and 25 years old
- 26% of people with an eating disorder will attempt suicide
- More than 10,000 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 that have you puzzled. Perhaps your daughter, once excited about clothes, has suddenly taken to wearing huge sweatshirts and sweatpants. You may think that because wearing big clothes would make them feel and look “fatter,” these wardrobe choices can’t be a symptom of an eating disorder. In reality, baggy clothes are often an initial sign of disordered eating, to hide the weight loss. Prompt diagnosis and intervention is vital to recovery, so noticing behavioral changes before any severe physical changes can occur is very important.
- Wears baggy clothes to hide the weight loss
- Stops seeing friends and hides away from family 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 green vegetables 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 – especially after eating
The more weight a child loses, the more difficult the physical and mental illnesses becomes, making it more and more difficult to recover. These physical signs mean your child needs immediate medical intervention.
- Noticeable weight fluctuations
- Difficulty concentrating / sleeping
- Bad breath, discolored teeth or other dental problems likely 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 establish a dialogue with their child and gather facts. The child will likely deny they are losing weight or have an eating disorder but will still continue 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.
While parents know their child better than anyone, it’s very unlikely any parents are equipped to handle this complex psychological issue. “At home” remedies and advice from well-meaning non-professionals is most likely to be completely ineffective, delaying proper care and making recovery much more difficult.
When you suspect your child has an eating disorder, get professional help immediately. Do not wait.
If you see any behaviors that indicate your child could have an eating disorder, call New Canaan Pediatrics at 203-972-4250 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.