Eating Disorders and Young Children

40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.

(source: National Eating Disorders Association


Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 years of age increased by 119 percent in a study from 1999 to 2006. (Source: The American Academy of Pediatrics/


1 in 10 cases of eating disorders involve males.

(Source: National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders


For any parent concerned about their child’s eating habits, these are certainly sobering statistics. “Presence of eating disorders in young children is on the rise,” says Kate Fisch, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Northside Mental Health in Indianapolis, who has been working with individuals suffering from eating disorders for over 10 years. According to Fisch, the average age of onset for children diagnosed with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder is typically around 11 or 12 years old, “however, some practitioners are seeing eating disorders in children as young as 6.”



What causes an eating disorder? 


Eating disorders are complex issues, with biological, social and psychological components say Fisch and Dr. Valerie Weesner, Clinical Director of the Indiana University Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders.


Fisch says that sometimes a genetic predisposition can make a child vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, with elements in their environment serving as a “trigger.” Triggers could include psychological stress from bullying, a parent’s divorce, medical issues or even dealing with puberty. “When I talk to parents about why their child has an eating disorder, I start by emphasizing that parents are not to blame,” says Fisch.


Kids attempting to handle difficult emotions, like grief for example, may develop issues with food as well. According to Fisch, young children are often not equipped to deal with complicated, abstract emotions. They may choose to focus on something more “black and white” that they do have some control over, such as what they eat. “This might be their way of avoiding the overwhelming distress of grief,” says Fisch.


Eating disorders can even develop in children who feel pressure to become healthy and physically fit. “A lot of the kids we’ve seen started out trying to get healthy, which resulted in weight loss, which then resulted in an eating disorder,” says Weesner. She adds that it is far more important to encourage children to consume all the food groups in a balanced way than it is to teach them about counting calories. “Our Charis Center mantra is: all foods can fit, there are no bad foods, and moderation is key.”



How can I tell if my child may have an eating disorder? 


Weesner and Fisch say there are several red flags for parents to be aware of that could indicate a potential problem, such as kids who:


  • Increase or decrease portion sizes at meals, skip meals altogether or hoard food
  • Spend excessive time in the bathroom or excessively exercise
  • Have frequent mood changes, tearfulness, isolate from family and friends or become more easily angered
  • Frequently describe foods as “healthy,” “unhealthy” or “fattening”
  • Have a dramatic weight loss, or other drastic weight fluctuations



How can I support my child? 


Eating disorders are serious and can result in chronic health issues including complications with the heart, hypertension, stunted growth and permanent loss of bone matter. Fortunately, these disorders are also treatable. According to Fisch, children who receive early eating disorder specific intervention and have their family involved in the process in a positive way have the best outcomes. Weesner adds, “It is important to continue working with [the child] until they can consume a wide range of foods, eat socially and have developed a multitude of healthy coping strategies.”


If you are at all concerned about your child’s eating habits, open up a dialogue that is supportive and non-judgmental. Talk with your pediatrician for guidance and next steps. Getting the support your child needs, and you need, can help everyone move toward a healthier path.


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