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Health Tips for Parents

2008 Issues

Does my child have an eating disorder?


On the cusp of puberty, children in grade school often become more aware of their bodies. Peer pressure and messages in the media may make them self-conscious about their weight and lead to low self-esteem and dieting at an early age. If this awareness becomes obsessive, it may signal an eating disorder. According to Michael Strober, Ph.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, if a parent suspects that a young child is struggling with an eating disorder, immediate professional counseling is critical. food scale

What is an eating disorder?
The most common eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia – affect more than 8 million Americans every year, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders.

Anorexia nervosa is a complex condition whereby a person loses an excessive amount of weight through starvation. Anorexics are obsessed with looking thin and are never satisfied with their body weight. They will deny there is a weight problem and will continue to fast and exercise compulsively. Anorexia can lead to stunted growth, brittle bones and a variety of conditions affecting the brain and heart.

The typical onset of this condition occurs around 13-18 years of age. Specific character traits present in childhood may increase the chances of developing these behaviors. Though less common, anorexia does present itself in grade school-aged children.

Bulimia is characterized by uncontrolled eating and purging. Bulimia is not a condition that occurs in younger children, notes Dr. Strober.

Who is at risk?
Certain behavior traits that may lead to a susceptibility to an eating disorder include:

  • General worry and anxiety
  • High regimentation and difficulty with change and transition
  • Perfectionism
  • Self-doubt and low self-esteem

When these character traits coexist with certain behaviors – children who discuss discomfort with their weight or who are extremely picky with their food, for example – that may signal an eating disorder.

Warning Signs
“An eating disorder is both a physical and emotional condition,” Dr. Strober explains. Parents may notice obvious changes in appearance, including dramatic weight loss and compulsive exercise. Other symptoms may include depression, social withdrawal or a preoccupation with food and calories.

Getting Help
If you suspect your child is suffering from an eating disorder, seek treatment immediately. The goal of intervention is to help children develop a healthy outlook about themselves and a positive attitude about food. Set a healthy example by serving a variety of nutritious foods and discuss the importance of a balanced diet. Exercise should be encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Most importantly, says Martin Anderson, M.D., adolescent medicine specialist at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, parents should focus on being supportive and a good role model. “Parents should not criticize their child’s weight or eating habits in a hurtful way,” he explains. Children will pick up clues if they hear their parent criticizing their own weight obsessively or if they watch their diet excessively.

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. UCLA Health System pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles. Additional information can be found on the UCLA Health System website at www.uclahealth.org or by calling 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (1-800-825-2631).

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