Eating disorders in young children–how bad is it?
It’s hard to escape the media coverage of eating disorders in young children. The stories are usually framed around the growing numbers of young children (generally meaning pre-pubescent, typically 10 or 11 and under) that are presenting for treatment. The articles generally consist of a breathless assessment of how bad the situation is, with no small amount of blaming the media and a child’s increasing exposure to images of super-skinny models.
Take this one:
In the past year alone, 42 children under the age of 10 were taken to hospital and admitted.
Disturbing new statistics reveal the “primary diagnosis” was an eating disorder.
Charities believe social media is a major factor, with many young victims posting ‘selfies’ of their emaciated bodies on Twitter.
First, consider the source. Second, where’s the research? Third, what if more children being diagnosed with an eating disorder isn’t quite as bad as some news stories make it sound?
So before I go any further, let me unequivocally state that I hate when I learn of anyone having an eating disorder. I’m not going to argue that EDs in anyone, including young children, are a good thing. All of that being said, here’s what we know:
For years, researchers had believed that EDs were a ‘teen thing.’ If you weren’t a teen, you pretty much couldn’t have an eating disorder. Not only did that leave those of us that had EDs long into adulthood with difficulties getting diagnosed and finding help, it also hurt children and pre-teens who had EDs but were ‘too young for that sort of thing.’
Thus, kids who had EDs weren’t diagnosed and treated adequately. By the time they had entered their teenage years, their EDs were already entrenched. So even when it may have looked like early diagnosis, it really wasn’t. This makes recovery more challenging and less likely. If we can get people proper diagnosis and treatment more quickly, isn’t that a good thing?
Although some evidence suggests that EDs might be striking people earlier than before, there is such little data on EDs at all, that I can’t really say for sure. We are definitely seeing more children with EDs presenting for treatment, but that doesn’t mean that children weren’t suffering from EDs before. We just weren’t aware of it, or perhaps gave it different names.
Instead of talking about the increase in EDs in children as a universally Bad Thing, maybe it’s not as bad as we think because it means that more kids are getting treatment when they need it. This thinking is supported by new research that was presented this week at the Eating Disorders Association of Canada conference in Vancouver by Dominique Meilleur and colleagues.
They created detailed biological, psychological, and social profiles of 215 children between ages 8 and 12 that had presented with “eating problems” that didn’t have a known physical cause. The vast majority of these children had anxiety and mood disorders, along with ADD/ADHD. The researchers found that:
- 95% of the children had restrictive eating behaviors
- 69.4% were afraid of putting on weight
- 46.6% described themselves as “fat.”
- 15.5% of the children occasionally made themselves vomit
- 13.3% had bulimic behaviors
In a story in Medical News Today on the research, Meilleur says:
These results are very concerning but they may help clinicians reach a diagnosis earlier by enabling them to investigate these aspects…Many researchers believe that bulimia only appears at adolescence, but our studies indicate that the problem can arise much earlier. It is possible that it is currently under-diagnosed due to a lack of awareness and investigation.
Nor are EDs in this age group only appearing in girls. Says Meilleur:
The profound similarity between boys and girls supports, in our opinion, the hypothesis that common psychological and physical factors linked, amongst other things, to the developmental period, are involved in the development of an eating disorder.
To me, getting treatment is far better than suffering in silence. Sure, it might distort statistics and make things initially look worse than before. But if the rise in childhood eating disorders means that more people are getting treated, I think that’s something we should be celebrating.