When Fussy Eating Becomes Sinister – Eating Disorders In Young Children

Pickiness around food is not uncommon in children. This is generally a natural part of growing up – more or less every child experiences “food neophobia” [1] at some point. However, in an increasingly image-conscious world, some children are developing a relationship with food which would be troubling even in a fully grown adult. Children as young as five – whose only concerns with their body should be the entirely practical considerations of whether or not they are capable of using playground equipment or tall enough to go on fairground rides – are beginning to obsess about the way they look, and develop eating disorders at an alarming rate. Obviously this is rather horrific – but parents need not panic. There are definite things parents can do to prevent their child from developing an eating disorder, and growing up to have a healthy relationship with food.

Societal Pressures

The growth in eating disorders amongst pre-teens is one of the scariest symptoms of modern society’s obsession with unattainable physical ‘perfection’. Previous generations did not worry so much about their appearance – and, if they did, those models to whom society pointed them as exemplars of the physical aesthetic had entirely believable and attainable figures. Nowadays, the ‘perfect’ female body is desperately small (so thin, in fact, that advertisers and the fashion industry has to resort to considerable lengths in Photoshop to make their models appear less like they’re starving to death), while the ideal male body is impossibly chiselled and muscular. At the same time, the diet industry constantly bombards the world with the message that we must think extremely carefully about what we eat while, on the opposite billboard, carb-loaded fast food is advertised in bright colors.

Growth In Childhood Eating Disorders

Much of this is not, of course, aimed at children, but they get hit by it nonetheless. They grow up with the societal message that they must look a certain way, and with deeply conflicted messages regarding food. According to The Telegraph, cases of eating disorders in pre-teens have tripled in the UK in just four years – and the rise is even steeper here in the US. The British attribute the rise to “a combination of pressures, including images from celebrity magazines and websites…fears of obesity and the growth of cyber-bullying”. Which is concerning, as all of these issues are much more ingrained in US society than they are across the Pond – indeed over here, there is even a subset of teenagers who actively promote anorexia in the name of looking like their celebrity idols, pour scorn on those who wish to be healed of the condition, and may well influence children younger than them. All in all, it’s a very troubling situation.

Lead By Example

However, there are things which can be done. Most scholars agree that “the family can play an important role in countering the development of eating concerns and body dissatisfaction in children” [2]. One of the best ways in which to do this is to lead by example. Children whose parents are obviously dissatisfied with the shape of their bodies are much more likely to scrutinize their own body shapes, compare them to the idealized versions held up by the media, and find them wanting. Of course, it is very good to encourage your children to eat healthily and exercise – so by all means lead by example in these arenas. However, be sure to emphasize the positive reasons behind the need for healthy eating, rather than expressing it in a negative ‘I need to improve the way I look’ manner. If children grow up thinking that the body is something which is inherently bad and must be constantly punished through diet and gruelling exercise just to keep it in reasonable shape, then they are far more likely to develop body image issues than if they think of their body as a wonderful resource which will thank them for treating it right.

Do Not 'Fat-Shame'

Needless to say, one should not castigate one’s child for being too fat. Childhood obesity is a massive problem in the States [3], and if your child is overweight then that is definitely a problem that you need to address. However, it is possible to do so without ‘fat-shaming’ them. Again, encourage them to think of their body as a vital resource rather than something that has the way it looks as its primary value. If your child is overweight, explain to them that their bodies won’t work as well as they should unless they start eating healthily and exercising. Do not imply that they look disgusting and are in some way shameful – unfortunately, they probably get enough of that at school. According to recent reports, “being overweight trumps all…other factors when it comes to aggressive behavior from other children” [4]. It is therefore your job to rebuild their self-confidence while simultaneously getting their weight down. Not an easy task, but it is possible to do this sensitively, without giving your child a complex.

Don't Use Food Rewards

Using food as reward or punishment is a very common parental trick. Unfortunately, it creates a mindset in which food gets wrapped up with a whole load of associations that can come back to haunt parents. A CNN report points out the damage that this did to a fourth-grade girl swept up on the eating-disorder epidemic – “when she was good”, they say, “she got treats; if she was bad, snacks were forbidden” [5]. By the time she was nine, this girl was struggling with both anorexia and bulimia. The thing is that most eating disorders are primarily mental disorders. If you’re making food into something with a lot of extraneous psychological connections, you increase the chances of those connections warping into obsessions which could lead to an eating disorder. So don’t use food-based rewards – try toys, outings, hugs, the opportunity to watch a favorite movie instead.

Seek Help If Necessary

If you do notice your child developing signs of an eating disorder – don’t bury your head in the sand. Get them to a doctor immediately – the earlier that these things are caught, the easier they are to treat. And don’t worry – help is out there, and the chances are that your child will make a full recovery, both mental and physical!

[1] Terence Dovey, Paul Staples, E. Leigh Gibson, Jason Halford, "Food neophobia and 'picky/fussy' eating in children: A review", Appetite, March-May 2008

[2] Ellen Schur, Mary Sanders, Hans Steiner, "Body dissatisfaction and dieting in young children", International Journal of Eating Disorders, December 1999

[3] Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, "Childhood Obesity Facts"

[4] Serena Gordon, "Bullies Target Obese Kids", US News, May 2010

[5] Cindy Harb, "Child eating disorders on the rise", CNN, August 2012

This free lance article was written for The Children's Workshop by guest writer, Helen Marks.