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What Are Eating Disorders in Children?

Learn about eating disorders in children from Allegra Broft, M.D. in this Howcast video.


Well, the first thing to say about the topic of eating disorders in children is that eating disorders are actually a group of diagnoses that effect adolescents and children in general quite frequently. Actually, the average onset of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, for example, is around the time of puberty, or maybe three or four years after the onset of puberty, so in the mid-teens or later teens. When we talk about eating disorders in children, we're talking about eating disorders, but it does surprise some people to hear that they can effect children even younger than teens. Children at the age of 12, 10, or even sometimes younger, we will see presenting to eating disorder clinics with eating disorder problems and in need of help.

There is some good news about eating disorders in children, which is that if you can recognize it early, there's a relatively good prognosis for recovery or the person turning around the eating problem, and that is often particularly the case if the child and the family can work together with an experienced professional to help the child re-engage in proper feeding and eating behaviors.

Children, of course, present special types of problems, especially younger children, in terms of trying to figure out whether and eating problem is going on. A child is not going to be able to describe their emotional world in the same type of abstract way that an older adolescent or an adult is going to be able to talk about their internal world. There may be more figuring out cues that you see in children to figure out whether an eating problem is going on. Maybe a child is coming home from school and they're bring back their lunch, and it's not eaten on most days. Maybe that tells you there's something going on.

Weight loss, of course, if it seems to be progressing, and in particular with children, while there can be weight fluctuations, if you go to the pediatrician and the pediatrician says, "Your child has fallen off the growth curve," that could be an indication that something is going on. Clearly, in children you always have to rule out, like with adults too, that there's not a medical problem contributing to the weight loss that better explains the eating problem.

The good news, again, is that with early intervention in these eating problems in children, there can be a relatively good prognosis, though again, like with all eating problems in children and adults, early intervention and treatment is critical.

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