The incidence of eating disorders seems to be rising in the general population and this includes among pre-adolescent children. Children as young as four years old are being treated for issues around food restriction, body image and compulsive over-eating, and the numbers rise as children approach adolescence and start to be more conscious of how they look.
While it is easy to blame the media and advertising for bombarding the public with images of how a young person 'should' look, it is also important to reflect that parents and siblings also help shape a child's sense of self. Parents who have their own issues around food, exercise or body image can unconsciously pass on these issues to their children. An older sibling may be dieting, exercising and becoming conscious of their body and this can add to the conflicting messages a child takes in. The rituals and habits a family has around food, mealtimes and body image naturally influence how a child relates to their physical sense of self. Who shops and cooks, where meals are eaten, the atmosphere around the dining table and discussions about weight and appearances can all impact on the child's use of food and exercise as a way of feeling emotionally safe.
Of course, a child may have physical factors that may be shaping how they eat and their weight and these need to considered before an eating disorder (which is a psychiatric condition) can be diagnosed.
Eating Disorder recovery at young ages
To support a child who seems to be struggling with issues around food and body image create healthy and predictable habits around mealtimes and ensure that meals are as nutritional and balanced as they can be. Parents can model healthy attitudes to food and exercise to their children by their own examples and time spent together can help a child to feel safe and part of the family. Encouraging your child to share their feelings also opens up communication and allows issues to be shared and explored rather than being held within. Allow your child to monitor their own hunger and do not force them to 'clean their plate' if they feel full. Above all, don't criticize your child's weight, shape or size and don't encourage derogatory comments towards others weight or appearance. Become mindful of your own thoughts and feelings about the food you eat and your body and seek your own support if you feel you need it.