Regardless of age, eating disorders are about underlying emotions, not food. Changes in behaviour with food could signal that a child is experiencing emotional, social or developmental issues such as depression, teasing, bullying or abuse. Often the eating disorder develops as a way for a child to feel in control over what’s happening in their life.
Although it is most common for eating disorders to develop during adolescence, young children can also be affected. Both the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the Westmead Hospital in Sydney have recorded large increases in admissions of children under 12 displaying symptoms of eating disorders since 2000.
Eating disorders are particularly dangerous in young children, as they can escalate quickly as well as permanently stunt growth and development. They can be difficult to diagnose as children’s body weight and nutrition requirements vary as they experience growth spurts. Eating disorders are not the same as fussiness, picky eating or eating difficulties that are linked to other issues such as autism spectrum disorder.
With so many mixed messages about what to eat, how to exercise, the ‘obesity crisis’, celebrity culture and social media, many children are feeling confused and pressured. More than half of Australian primary school age children want to lose weight, and up to 80% of 10-year-old girls in the United States have reportedly been on a diet.
Research suggests 20–25% of children affected by eating disorders are boys and there also may be a link between childhood obesity and the development of an eating disorder as an adolescent or adult.
Children are influenced by parents and teachers, who play an important role in modelling healthy and balanced attitudes towards food, exercise and body image. Some important guidelines for parents and teachers include:
- Try not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as this may lead to feelings of guilt and shame when ‘bad’ foods are eaten
- Avoid using food as bribes, punishment or rewards
- Avoid promoting unrealistic or perfectionist ideals in terms of your child’s behaviour, grades and achievements, and instead encourage self-acceptance
- Encourage children to celebrate diversity, and not place too much value on physical appearance as a measure of value
- Accept that children are likely to have different eating habits from adults — they may require food more frequently during the day or go through periods of liking or disliking particular foods
- Children learn by example — don’t skip meals, participate in fad diets or enforce diets upon children
- Encourage your child to express their feelings freely and encourage open communication in the home
- Allow your child to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full — don’t force them to eat everything on their plate
- Model acceptance of different body shapes and sizes, including your own
- Don’t criticise or tease children about their appearance, or make comparisons to another child’s appearance
- Encourage sport and regular exercise to foster their body confidence. Model a healthy lifestyle yourself by participating in regular exercise for enjoyment and fitness
- Reassure your child that it is normal and healthy to gain weight at the onset of puberty and throughout adolescence
- Help children develop a critical awareness of the images and messages they receive from television, magazines, the internet and social media
If you are concerned about a child restricting food groups or portion sizes, consult your GP.