Anorexia is a psychiatric illness that generally starts in adolescence. However, a new trend is concerning doctors: younger and younger children are being affected by anorexia. Abnormal weight loss, an obsession with calorie counting, and all that goes with it. Is it a temporary phenomenon? Read on to find out more about anorexia in children.
Younger and younger, thinner and thinner
British doctors were the ones who first sounded the alarm. According to Dr. Marie-France Le Heuzey, who works in a Parisian psychiatric service, “the age of onset for eating disorders, especially anorexia, is becoming younger and younger. Twenty years ago, precocious anorexia was rare. Nowadays, the service is seeing 7-8 year old children every month”. She adds that among her current patients are a 9 year old little boy, a 7 year old little girl and another who is 12 years old, whose problems with eating started when she was only 6.
What are the causes?
The weight loss cult is extremely present in today’s society. Models, actresses, reality TV stars – do they have an influence? According to the specialist, not directly, as experts recognise that young girls have always been surrounded by an appearance focused culture. According to her, little girls are becoming increasingly anxious at younger and younger ages about their physique, particularly because there is less and less of a difference being made between the generations (beauty products for children, similar child and adult fashions, etc.). In short, young girls are increasingly trying to be like young women. Although an obsession with thinness has a role to play, other criteria (genetics, family history, etc.) can also lead to food restrictions in anorexic children.
It is also important to analyse the home environment, particularly at meal times. Children imitate their parents. If the parents are permanently trying to lose weight and constantly controlling their diets (as well as those of their children), it can lead to eating disorders in the children. On the other hand, it is difficult to discern the exact reasons for such early onset of the illness. According to Dr. Le Heuzey, “the causes of anorexia remain unknown, it is a more complex illness than it appears, and the causes are multifactorial. This is why it is so difficult to treat.”
Anorexia: when does it become a concern?
If your child forgets to eat their snack two days in a row, there is no need to panic! Precocious anorexia can manifest in different ways: significant weight loss, stunted growth (and a pause in weight gain)…. These are the consequences of a significant change in your child’s behaviour, such as limiting calories, increased preoccupation with their body weight, dietary changes (for example, refusing foods that they previously enjoyed), a growing compulsion to exercise, social isolation, etc. According to the experts, you need to be vigilant, and talk to your doctor at any sign of doubt.
How is it managed?
Hospitalisation (separation from the family) has long been the method used to treat children suffering from precocious anorexia. Nowadays, other methods are preferred in order to get the child to start putting on weight and growing again. It could involve medical treatment prescribed by a doctor (corrective treatments) or following a nutritional programme to progressively regulate their diet, prescribed by a dietician or nutritionist. The child may also go for psychiatric treatment or family therapy. In the case of significant malnutrition or if the family do not succeed in managing the illness, hospitalisation may be necessary.