Eating disorders in children and teens are on the rise two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitalisation rates three times higher now than before. Even kids as young as eight or nine are affected, according to a study of six Canadian hospitals.
“Most commonly, we see [eating disorders] in young teenagers, but we are seeing it in 8-, 9- or 10-year-old children, more than we’ve seen in the past,” said Catherine Gordon, chair of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and paediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.
With this in mind, it’s important to be aware of the signs of an eating disorder, as early detection can help prevent more serious long-term complications. If you catch a child’s burgeoning eating disorder early on, said Gordon, “you can get them to feeling better about themselves and about eating, and ward off some of the long-term [complications].”
Warning signs of an eating disorder
Some of the signs of an eating disorder include:
- skipping meals
- compulsive exercise, especially after eating
- highly restricted eating patterns, like eliminating entire groups of food or only eating at very specific times
- talking about eating but only picking at meals
- consuming highly caffeinated beverages as an appetite suppressant
“Needing to exercise every day or to exercise after meals can be a warning sign,” Gordon said. “A child or adolescent who was a good eater, who stops eating well, or who makes a lot of excuses for not eating — that’s often a red flag.”
She added, “Most of the patients I’ve treated with eating disorders have an element of anxiety, depression or both.” Look for signs of anxiety and depression, like acting withdrawn or losing interest in having fun.
How to talk with your child about what is going on
If your child is starting to show signs of an eating disorder, it’s important to be proactive. Gordon’s recommendations are to first spend some time talking patiently with your child about what is going on in their life.
“Sit down with them and ask open-ended questions. It can really take time for them to open up and reveal to you what they are feeling,” Gordon said. “The more you validate their feelings, the more they are going to feel comfortable opening up.” If your child is having trouble opening up to you, consider finding someone else they feel comfortable speaking with, such as a school counselor, therapist, or your paediatrician.
If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, enlist the help of experienced professionals. Your paediatrician is a good place to start, as they can offer referrals to specialists, and look for more resources at The National Eating Disorders Association.