Eating disorders can cause serious psychological, physical and social harm to a young person. Unfortunately, in the UK, NHS studies have shown that they are on the rise in children. These disorders are not limited to anorexic teenage girls; they affect other age groups as well.
This article will highlight the extent of the problem of eating disorders in children and explain how parents can provide the necessary support.
What do the numbers show?
The healthcare data is alarming. Hospital admissions for eating disorders among minors are increasing every year. During 2018–2019, almost 20,000 people were admitted into hospital due to an eating disorder. Worryingly, approximately 4,000 of these patients were children. More than half of these cases involved minors with anorexia. Interestingly, while anorexia is common among girls, hospital admissions of anorexic boys are also rising.
What do the experts say?
Obesity is also a growing concern.
In UK schools:
- Only 20% of boys and less than 15% of girls do one hour of exercise a day
- Less than 20% of children eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables every day
The NHS is taking action to reduce children’s addiction to all types of sugary and fatty foods. Another objective is to increase the amount of physical exercise children do in school. The NHS is also supporting the improvement and development of community eating disorder services.
Experts are worried about the recent figures. The authorities and non-government organisations are encouraging young people to seek help if they have an eating disorder. Minors and young people need to obtain appropriate support and guidance before their situation worsens.
A leading psychiatrist has expressed concern about the difficulty of treating children with eating disorders once they have been admitted to hospital. The emphasis is on the old adage that prevention is better than cure. Eating disorders are considered to be a severe mental illness and once a patient has been admitted, they will need help from a psychiatrist. Unfortunately, there is often a long wait for such specialist treatment.
Nevertheless, a full recovery from an eating disorder is achievable, and early detection and prevention can make the treatment process much easier.
This is the primary reason why doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals need to undergo training in the early diagnosis of eating disorders. This will enable them to provide effective treatment before a young patient needs to be admitted into hospital.
Whether a patient is in hospital or at home, their treatment should involve evidence-based and high-quality care in order to:
- Boost their recovery rate
- Reduce relapses
- Lessen the need for hospital admissions
Every year, the UK government provides funds to community eating disorder services.
How can parents help?
Eating disorders in children can have a variety of causes, such as:
- Poor parental attitudes and behaviour regarding food and body image
- Peer pressure
Of course, appetites can change and develop as a child matures; some will eat absolutely anything while others will have a discriminating palate. Younger children may avoid certain types of food while teenagers may opt for fad diets.
However, undue pressure can cause a minor to:
- Lose/suppress their appetite
- Turn to food for comfort
- Eat even if they don’t feel hungry
A child may be attracted by food or feel repulsed by it, and this can depend on their emotions and self-esteem. They may also use food as a coping mechanism whenever they feel:
What can you do as a parent if you suspect your child has an eating disorder?
- Recognise that your child may be hiding their problems from you. Also, they may be unwilling to accept your help even if they need it.
- Before you go to a GP, make a list of your primary concerns. The doctor can assess your child and determine whether they require specialist treatment.
- Various treatments are available depending on the type of eating disorder and the related symptoms, including:
- Dietary control
- Therapy (for the child and the family)
If you are advised to participate in a therapeutic exercise, remember it is for the good of your child to help them resolve their problem.
- If your child is still losing lots of weight despite your best efforts, it is probably time to get them to a hospital or clinic.
- If your child is reluctant to open up to you about their feelings or problems, other family members or friends may be able to help.
- Another option is the child’s teacher as they are often good listeners and may be able to lend support.
Children and young people with an eating disorder may see food as the answer to their problems. Unfortunately, this can make treatment a challenge for parents and healthcare professionals alike. The prevailing attitudes and pressures in a child’s immediate surroundings can have an impact on their attraction or aversion to food. As a result, parents must always be alert and ready to act if their child is showing any visible signs of an eating disorder.