Did you know that anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic disease among young people, after asthma and type 1 diabetes? It is also the mental health diagnosis with the highest mortality rate, making it crucial for families to act quickly in getting their child the proper support and treatment. Eating disorders are not just a problem among adult and adolescent populations. In fact, 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. As our society continues to place great focus on physical appearance, diet culture, and unrealistic body image ideals, it is important for parents to be vigilant around their child’s eating behaviors and attitudes toward their bodies.
Here are three best practices for parents when it comes to pediatric eating disorders:
1) Pay Attention to Shifts in Your Child’s Behavior and/or Affect
Notice any red flags your child may be displaying around food. Has your child recently started avoiding foods or eliminating entire food groups? Have you noticed a sudden change in your child’s appetite? Maybe your child is returning home with school lunches intact or only eating in isolation. These eating habits may indicate that there is a larger problem. It isn’t all that uncommon for young children to be “picky eaters,” but we are seeing more children being diagnosed with ARFID, or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, a diagnosis that was added to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Children with ARFID may display food avoidance, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, fear of choking or emetophobia (fear of vomiting). These are just some of the red flags that parents, loved ones, and professionals can watch for.
2) Act Early
When eating disorders are diagnosed and treated in the early stages, recovery outcomes are significantly better. It is imperative that individuals experiencing eating disorder behaviors are given the proper support early on, they are better positioned to break the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and to begin the process of recovery and healing. According to Lock, Agras, Bryson, and Kraemer (2005), when adolescents are given family-based treatment within the first three years of the illness onset, they have a much greater likelihood of recovery. Early intervention can also prevent the progression of serious medical and psychological consequences resulting from repeated eating disorder behavior use. If eating disorders go untreated, they can lead to serious health conditions such as organ failure, diabetes, and even death.
3) Avoid Blaming
It can be easy for parents to blame themselves when a child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but the antiquated idea that parents are the cause of a child’s eating disorder is a myth. The reality is that no one thing can be the sole cause of an eating disorder. Rather, there is some combination of biological, psychological, and environmental components that come together to create the perfect storm that is an eating disorder. While it can be helpful to understand and address some of these factors later in recovery, the most immediate concern – according to Family-Based Treatment (one of the only evidence-based eating disorder interventions for adolescents) – is to address malnutrition and/or maladaptive coping skills in order to move forward in a way that is positive and productive toward recovery.
If you are concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, or if you have concerns for a loved one or a friend, do something about it. Please call 888-791-0004 to speak with a Walden eating disorders intake specialist or contact us online. You can also contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline at 800-931-2247 for more information about eating disorders and visit their website to find treatment available in your area.
Abby MacKinnel, ATR, LPC is currently an Adolescent Clinician and Art Therapist at Walden Behavioral Care’s Guilford, CT Clinic. Abby received her Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from the University of Vermont and her master’s degree in Art Therapy from Albertus Magnus College. Abby began working at Walden in 2016 and took particular interest in utilizing art with adolescents and families in treatment, and leading groups on body image and eating disorders in the media. Prior to her work at Walden, Abby has gained experience working in a therapeutic art studio as well in an Inpatient Psychiatric unit. Abby enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with her dog, Simon when she is not working.