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What Parents Need to Know about Eating Disorders and Children

From OC Mom Blog

As a mother of a teenaged daughter, I feel it is important to be aware of any possible signs of an eating disorder. We live in a time where young girls feel an extreme amount of pressure to look a certain way, and can easily develop body image issues which can lead to eating disorders. Over the past year, I have been aggressively working on weight loss and changing my eating habits to be healthier. I have started to get concerned that maybe I have been spending too much time talking about my weight loss journey around my daughter, and wanted to ensure that my actions do not impact her and cause body image issues. Last week, I talked with Dr. Mery Taylor at CHOC Children’s Hospital about what is an eating disorder, signs that parents like myself should be aware of, and what to do if you feel like your child needs help.

Dr. Mery M. Taylor is a Pediatric Psychologist at CHOC Children’s Hospital who works with many children suffering from eating disorders. One of the biggest concerns that I have had as a parent of a teenager is wondering what signs I should be looking for in my children to see if they are experiencing an eating disorder. She advised that the most obvious thing that parents can be looking for is if their child is falling off expected weight gains and growth gains. What they typically see in children is a restriction of food or other ways to purge calories, overexercising or the use of laxatives.

A sign that I never thought to be looking for is if a child makes an abrupt diet change like becoming vegetarian or vegan. As a parent, I always thought it would be good if my child wanted to make a major lifestyle change and only eat a clean diet, but Dr. Taylor advised that it can be one of the biggest signs that a child could possibly have an eating disorder. She agreed that we live in a health conscious society and a lot of parents think it is wonderful that children decide to stop eating junk food, and parents can often have a feeling of security that it is a good thing. However, parents need to recognize that it is alright for children in adolescence to splurge at times. It is normal for them to be alright with eating pizza, chips or sweets at times, and if a child is not ever willing to indulge – that is a sign that parents should be concerned.

Another surprising fact that I learned from Dr. Taylor is that the majority of children with eating disorders are usually straight A students, captains of the volleyball team, and normally don’t give their parents any trouble because they want to excel. Being determined is a characteristic that is highly valued in our society, and also a characteristic that most children suffering from an eating disorder possess. As I have been on my weight loss journey, it has taken a huge amount of willpower and determination, so I can see how this could lead to an eating disorder if I were a child. I talked to Dr. Taylor about my concern about my journey impacting my daughter. She advised that it is important to moderate your conversation when talking about eating healthy. Make sure that the message you send to your children is that it is not good to lose too much weight. We want to eat healthy, but not eating enough for what our body expenditure is can be critical. That eating healthy is ok as long as it is not extreme.

The advice that Dr. Taylor shared changed the way that I started talking to my teenager about weight loss and dieting. I began to make sure that my daughter sees me eating sweets from time to time, and I have opened up a lot of healthy conversation with her about healthy living.

Eating disorders in children are very dangerous. It doesn’t take a lot for a child to drop 10-20% of their body weight, and Dr. Taylor shared with me that an extreme weight loss can send a child into a major medical crisis. It can cause blood pressure changes and electrolyte abnormalities which are critical for our heart health, and there is a potential that they can go into cardiac arrest. It can also be very dangerous, especially if a child is exercising. When they exercise, they lose muscle, our heart is a muscle, and they are weakening it.

They don’t know what the cause of eating disorders is, but a lot of research is showing that genetics and the child’s temperament play into it. It can start as early as 8-years-old, and the majority of the children they see at CHOC Children’s Hospital are the age of 13-years-old.

If you have a pre-teen or teenage children, it is important to maintain a healthy conversation with them about their diet and body image. Watch for signs that they might be developing an eating disorder, and get help immediately if any of the signs develop. CHOC Children’s Hospital has an incredible team of doctors just like Dr. Taylor who are passionate about helping children and parents to lead healthy lives. If you think that your child could possibly have an eating disorder, get help right away by contacting CHOC Children’s Hospital.

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UC Irvine

CHOC Children's is affiliated with the UC Irvine School of Medicine