Anorexia is a complex illness that affects people of all ages. Though the onset of anorexia typically occurs in adolescence, it has become more widespread today in tweens, children as early as age 7 or 8. In tweens, however, anorexia is more difficult to diagnose, as many of them may not be suffering from anorexia alone, but rather other forms of eating dysfunction.
What Does this Mean?
Like with anorexia, children who experience poor growth as a result of malnutrition or “picky eating syndrome” may be lower in weight. These conditions are commonly confused with anorexia; however, there are telltale signs that differ.
Anorexia, also known as restrictive dieting, is a neurological-based disorder and far more complex than “picky eating syndrome.” Though children who are finicky eaters may suffer from stunted growth, poor bone development, or sociability problems, it is a condition than can be treated with positive reinforcement. Anorexia, on the other hand, is a serious mental illness and, in most cases, requires professional medical treatment.
The reasons behind the development of anorexia will differ from person to person, but regardless, it is imperative that eating disorders such as anorexia receive the same level of health care coverage that is available for treatment of other psychiatric conditions.
Anorexia can, if not properly treated, lead to serious illness, or worse, death. That is why it is important to monitor your child’s behavior for any of the following symptoms:
Excessive weight loss
Denying feeling hungry
Complaining about feeling 'fat'
Withdrawing from social activities
What Causes Anorexia in Tweens?
The way human bodies are portrayed through media outlets is certainly problematic. The emphasis of 'thin is sexy' can affect viewers’ self-perception and their expectations for their own bodies.
This portrayal is troublesome for adults, let alone children. For some, it is a contributing factor to the development of an eating disorder. Such images likely promote body shaming, racism and other forms of discrimination. In the fight for equality, the media is an important avenue, which is why it can manipulate the way tweens see their bodies.
However, media influence is not the sole reason a child would suffer from anorexia. In fact, eating disorders remain one of the most misunderstood illnesses in the world. This hyper-focus on the media can be dangerous.
Those who have been personally affected by an eating disorder are aware of how complex these problems really are. For many others, this cause-and-effect relationship between the media and the public is the central point of their knowledge.
With that, there are many more realities of anorexia that are overshadowed. Here are 7 factors that contribute to anorexia.
7 Anorexia is a Mental Illness
Like adults, anorexia in tweens can develop from several factors. While these factors are not necessarily predictive, they may contribute to the onset of disordered eating behaviors.
Biological Factors: Possible biochemical or biological causes of anorexia are still being determined; however, common links have been discovered. For example, in some individuals with anorexia, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion are reported unbalanced. The exact reason of these imbalances remains unknown, but research indicates that there are significant genetic contributions to anorexia.
Psychological Factors: Depression, stress, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of control in life can bring forth the restriction of eating, further developing into anorexia or other types of emotional eating disorders.
Interpersonal Factors: Troubled relationships with others, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, or a history of physical or sexual abuse are also potential triggers of this disease.
Cultural Factors: As mentioned, mainstream media tends to focus on a physical ideal that many tweens are exposed to on a daily basis. In fact, dieting, exercise, and weight loss are rewarded by our culture, which can trigger the brain (especially a young developing brain) to lead to an obsessive, pathological state.
6 Anorexia Severely Harms Internal Organs
Self-starvation in anorexia can cause anemia, shrunken organs, low blood pressure, hair loss, slowed metabolism, bone mineral loss, and irregular heartbeat. For a tween, this can be extremely life altering as the body has yet to fully develop.
Moreover, stunted growth is one of the most common long-term complications in tweens with anorexia. Though there are reports of “catch-up growth,” depending on the length of the illness, anorexia can cause permanent (and severe) damage to the human body.
5 Many People Don’t Seek Treatment for Anorexia
Only 1 out of every 10 persons with anorexia will ever seek out some form of treatment. Why? Eating disorders like anorexia are often not associated with mental illnesses, but rather attributed to vanity related issues. This theory is false.
4 Anorexia is Life Consuming
Truth be told, people with anorexia, regardless of their age or gender, are robbed of valuable years they will never get back. That is why it is important to understand that anorexia doesn't just crop up around mealtime.
In fact, anorexia and other types of eating disorders can swallow up precious time of someone's life. Whether it’s in the hours lost to thoughts dominated by food, or years lost in waiting for a goal that will never be reached, anorexia can certainly take over someone's life.
3 Anorexia in Males is Often Misdiagnosed
An estimated 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2000 men suffer from anorexia. Because anorexia is more prevalent in females, male anorexia is often misdiagnosed. The truth is, males also suffer from this life-threatening illness.
Doctors often misdiagnose anorexia and other types of eating disorders in men because the signs are much more difficult to detect. For example, men are less likely to complain about dizziness. They are likely to wear less revealing clothing, making it easier to hide weight loss. Moreover, men are less likely to come forward with anorexia not only because they may feel emasculated by it, but also because anorexia is commonly diagnosed in females. Also, they may not even recognize they are suffering from the disorder in the first place.
2 Traumatic Eating Experiences Can Trigger Anorexia
Anorexia and other types of eating disorders in tweens can also be triggered by traumatic eating experiences. For example, eating difficulties that started during infancy or early childhood (i.e. choking, severe gagging, or witnessing somebody else choking) can take the form of early-onset anorexia.
The good news is, this onset trigger can be prevented. It's natural for tweens to have specific fears associated with eating, which is why they need to be addressed as soon as an incident occurs. The younger the child, the more important it is to use family therapy to provide a stable environment in which the child can learn to eat mindfully. In other words, kids should regulate their eating in accordance with hunger and fulfillment, rather than associating eating with emotional experiences.
Below are some tips on how to help your child practice mindful eating:
Reflect: Before eating, take a moment and have your child reflect on how he feels.
Eliminate distractions: Remove any electronic devices or toys when your child is eating. These distractions will only make him less aware of what and how much he is eating.
Serve out portions: Resist having your child eat directly from the bag or box. Not only is this easier to track serving size, but it also allows for more food appreciation.
Relax: Eating should never be a stressful experience, so make sure your child is in a calm state before feeding him.
Give gratitude: Before your child starts to eat, have him pause and take a moment to acknowledge the work that went into providing his meal—be it thanks to the farmers, the animals, Mother Earth, or the chefs.
Savor the flavor: Practice silence during mealtime so that your child can become aware of the food’s consistency, flavor, tastes, and smells.
1 Anorexia Isn't a Choice
Many people think those suffering from anorexia have chosen this path for themselves. As mentioned earlier, anorexia and other types of eating disorders are actually psychiatric conditions that, in most cases, can only be cured through medical interventions.
Admittedly, anorexia and other eating disorders may begin with the desire to lose a few pounds, but in time, anorexia can take over and control the way a person lives life. For example, people with anorexia will exclude themselves from social gatherings for fear of being ostracized or unaccepted. In fact, this fear of unacceptance can occur in children as early as seven years old.
Above all, anorexia is a biological-based mental illness. If you suspect your child beginning to develop anorexic-like symptoms, consult with a medical professional immediately.