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Know the Signs: Is Your Young Child at Risk for an Eating Disorder?

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Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that have long been primarily – and wrongfully –associated with teenaged girls. The fact is, eating disorders simply do not discriminate. In recent years, more adults and children, of both genders, have sought treatment for these potentially life-threatening diseases.

In fact, from 1999 to 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders increased sharply – 119% – for children younger than 12 years.* And in Denver, Eating Recovery Center, a local treatment center, recently expanded its child and adolescent programming to accommodate increasing demand.

It’s important for parents of children at any age to educate themselves about eating disorders in order to prevent them, and to recognize and treat them if they do occur.

Why are eating disorders in children and adolescents on the rise?

Genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger. Children with a family history of eating disorders or who have a highly sensitive temperament are more likely than other children to be affected by the world around them to the point that they will engage in disordered eating behaviors.

As the world becomes a more stressful, complicated place, as our culture continues to promote unrealistic ideals and as our children become more and more over-programmed, these kids turn to disordered eating as a way to cope.

How can you tell if your child has an eating disorder?
As a parent, it’s important to keep an eye out for changes in mood and behavior and to act quickly if you suspect your child is showing signs of an eating disorder.

Warning signs of an eating disorder:
– Weight loss or drastic fluctuations.
– Preoccupation with weight, food, food labels and dieting.
– Excessive drinking of fluids or denial of hunger.
– Avoidance of meal times and situations involving food.
– Withdrawal from friends and activities.
– Self-induced vomiting or abuse of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills.
– Excessive, rigid exercise regimen.
– Change in dress: over-sized to cover the body or revealing clothes to flaunt weight loss.

How can parents prevent eating disorders?

Though there is no surefire way to prevent an eating disorder from developing, there are a few ways to minimize the chances that your child will be triggered into disordered eating behaviors.

– Know your genetics. If eating disorders run in your family, your child may be more prone to disordered eating behaviors.
– Focus on who your child is, not what he or she does. Take the focus away from your child’s accomplishments, and instead praise your child for who he or she is.
– Don’t put your child on a diet. Diets are one of the most significant triggers for eating disorders development. Instead, focus on moderation and overall health.

What should you do if you suspect your child has an eating disorder?
It’s important to first focus on opening the lines of communication. The goal isn’t to argue over whether or not your child has been eating, but rather to start a conversation.

– Ask questions; don’t make accusations. Speak to what you’ve noticed and ask direct questions. For example, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been eating carbohydrates lately. Why are you cutting back on these types of foods?”
– Empathize, but remain firm. Emphasize that your child isn’t in trouble, but that you’re worried. Tell your child what will happen next. For example, “Tomorrow morning, we’re going to talk to a doctor about your overall health.”
– Seek qualified resources. Your family’s physician, your child’s pediatrician or a local eating disorders treatment center can arm you with useful information to help you better understand your child’s illness and to seek treatment if necessary.

One of the most important things for parents to understand is that eating disorders are not “caused” by parents. Rather than focusing on the “cause,” focus on what role you need to play in his or her recovery. Supporting your child’s healthy future is the most important role you can play.

Guest blogger Dr. Elizabeth Easton is clinical director of child and adolescent services for Eating Recovery Center’s Child and Adolescent Behavioral Hospital.

*http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/126/6/1240.long

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