The holiday season brings families together with a big emphasis on food, which can be overwhelming for a child or teen with an eating disorder. Some therapists note an increase in families seeking medical help for a child with an eating disorder during and after the holidays.
A child with an eating disorder often obsesses about food and weight. One child may refuse to eat much of anything, while another eats excessively. Some children are uncomfortable sitting down with parents at dinner and hurry off to the bathroom after a meal or tend to prefer to eat by themselves where food quantities will not be noticed.
Eating disorders are complex, and many children and teens with these disorders also have psychological issues, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. These children are often very sensitive to parental criticism about their diets, weight or other personal habits.
Behaviors associated with eating disorders vary. Some children with bulimia nervosa will eat large quantities or appear to eat normally, and then disappear into the bathroom to vomit. Or they take laxatives or exercise excessively. Children with anorexia nervosa will eat very little, almost to the point of starvation.
Other symptoms of eating disorders can include irregular menstrual periods, excessive tooth decay or gum problems, or frequent stomach or intestinal pain. Without effective treatment, an eating disorder can lead to very serious physical problems.
While eating disorders occur most often in adolescents and young adults, they appear to be occurring more commonly among younger children. Overall, an estimated 7 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders.
Finding the right treatment
Eating disorders can be related to genetic and environmental issues. For example, anorexia is far more common in children who have relatives with the disorder, and researchers have identified links among affected siblings, indicating a genetic predisposition to eating disorders.
A comprehensive assessment is necessary to develop an individual treatment program for your child. Since many children try to hide an eating disorder, parents may need to use their persuasive skills when scheduling a visit with the doctor. It’s also important to let the doctor know about your concern in advance, particularly when making appointments for teens and college students.
Depending on the severity and type of a child’s eating disorder, a multidisciplinary treatment approach may be necessary. A doctor can evaluate your child’s physical condition and define the appropriate treatment plan.
The therapist can help your child address the psychological and emotional issues and provide emotional support, helping your child improve self-control and develop a better outlook on life. In some cases, family therapy and psychiatric input may be required. A dietitian or nutritionist can help your child develop healthy eating patterns and restore normal weight. A healthy diet can give your child more energy, help him or her think more clearly and restore the heart, liver, stomach and other organs’ functionality more effectively.
While it may take time, this multidisciplinary treatment approach can make a big difference for your child. So if an eating disorder comes to light over the holidays — or any time of year — don’t delay. Talk to a professional, and get your child started on the path toward better health.
Dr. Lorena Siqueira is the director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Miami Children’s Hospital.