Early onset eating disorders are those affecting children. Unfortunately, we’ve been witnessing a troublesome tendency in the past years. The rate of such disorders among the youngest and most vulnerable is increasing.

Most people think about teenagers and young adults when eating disorders (EDs) are being mentioned. Problems like anorexia and bulimia, however, have been diagnosed in children as young as seven or eight.

What are the risk factors and how can parents recognise early onset eating disorders? There are several tell-tale signs to remain vigilant about.

The Research

Eating disorders can affect children under the age of 12. One of the most important things to understand about early onset EDs is that these conditions tend to affect equal numbers of boys and girls.

According to research published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, there are no gender-based difference when EDs are diagnosed at such an early age. These findings come in stark contrast with EDs diagnosed among teens and young adults. When the diagnosis occurs after one’s childhood years, ED tends to affect a disproportionate number of women.

The prevalence of early onset EDs has also grown over the past few decades.

According to the study quoted above, eating disorders affect 0.3 per cent of the girls in the eight to 15 age range and 0.1 per cent of the boys. Researchers based their findings on the examination of 4,524 children. The clinical trial continued over the course of two years and the scientists classified eating disorders into five clinical sub-types: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorders, other specified feeding and eating disorders.

This study isn’t the only one painting a bleak picture.

According to analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, eating disorder hospitalisation in children under the age of 12 has gone up 119 per cent from 1996 to 2006. The researchers also found out that early onset eating disorders have started spreading to countries and parts of the world that weren’t characterised by such conditions in the past.

Research also suggests that people under the age of 13 who have already been diagnosed with an eating disorder are also likely to suffer from other mental health issues. Some of the most common accompanying diagnoses include anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Risk Factors

Children are at high risk of EDs in today’s day and age but which factors are contributing to the increased prevalence of such conditions?

Researchers have not been capable of pinpointing one reason or trend that is leading to higher numbers of children suffering from eating disorders. There’s some evidence that mothers who often diet, have negative body image and are too concerned with their weight could affect the development of their children and increase the risk of disordered behaviours linked to food and healthy eating.

There is also some evidence that eating disorders can be heritable.

If a family member has an eating disorder, children are seven to 12 times more likely to develop the same condition than children who do not have ED cases in the family.

A British study also suggests that nearly 44 per cent of the children who develop an eating disorder before the age of 13 have a family member who suffers from a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.

These factors, however, aren’t the only ones that make children prone to early onset eating disorders.

Behavioural and social factors also play a role. Singapore psychologists believe this is where the big difference has occurred.

Young people are heavily influenced by the images they see online and their idols. A new generation is growing up with Instagram, Snapchat and smartphone filters. All of these contribute to a distorted perception of beauty and reality.

Many children that have an eating disorder struggle with at least one of the following: very low self-esteem, poor body image, excessive fear of becoming overweight and even feelings of helplessness. It’s easy to see how these can be fuelled by society, peers and media.

Signs of Early Onset EDs: When to Seek Help

Many parents find it difficult to recognise the symptoms of early onset eating disorders. These could be mistaken for fussy eating or simply going through a “phase.”

Still, there are warning signs that an observant parent will detect. With time, these will become more pronounced and the range of symptoms will increase.

Young children who have an eating disorder can demonstrate an aversion to specific tastes and textures. Other warning signs include extreme shyness and anxiety, worries about one’s body, a pronounced fear of stomach aches, tantrums around meal time and even frequent bowel movements.

As the ED progresses, the symptoms could start including a refusal to eat, constant efforts to bring down portion sizes, digestive problems like constipation/diarrhoea, hair thinning, apathy, mood swings, puberty onset delays, noticeable weight loss, hiding food or hoarding food.

Treating early onset EDs can be a challenging process so the sooner parents seek help, the better. There will be many components that a psychologist will need to address in order to get a young patient on the journey to recovery.

Family-based interventions and treatment plans could also be developed. Parents and guardians play a massive role in the life of children. If a parent is exhibiting unhealthy behaviours, children will be likely to act in similar ways. Thus, the problem that the adult has will have to be addressed to create the right kind of environment for a young person recovering from an ED.

Behavioural interventions are another possible approach. It’s often used with children who refrain from consuming certain types of foods, who fear food or have highly pronounced aversions.

A holistic approach towards the treatment of an eating disorder is incredibly important. Adelphi Psych Medicine Clinic can offer such assistance. Our team has the experience and the tea, to work with young patients and their parents, delivering significant improvement over time. Contact us today if you suspect that your child could be suffering from an eating disorder.