What is Childhood Anorexia?

L.R. Ferguson

Childhood anorexia is an eating disorder that arises in childhood as opposed to occurring in adolescence, when anorexia typically begins. Although anorexia occurs less frequently among children, the disorder is very similar to anorexia in teenagers or adults. When a child suffers from anorexia, he or she typically exhibits the same psychological and physical characteristics as an adolescent who has this eating disorder, such as a refusal to eat a healthy amount of food and an often irrational belief that he or she is overweight.

Parental divorce can cause some teenage girls to become anorexic.
Parental divorce can cause some teenage girls to become anorexic.

Although anorexia involves the afflicted person’s obsession with, and subsequent damage to, his or her physical appearance, the disorder is widely regarded as psychological. People who have anorexia — the majority of whom are girls and women — might initially begin dieting and exercising to lose weight but soon show an inability to perceive when weight loss has become dangerous and unhealthy. Achieving extreme weight loss becomes a matter of mental control, and the individual goes to unhealthy extremes to avoid gaining weight. People who have anorexia usually deny or are unable to recognize the damaging effects of their actions. Thus, in addition to requiring physical healing, people who have eating disorders often need to undergo intense therapy and psychological counseling as well.

Children who have anorexia are often exceedingly picky about the foods they eat.
Children who have anorexia are often exceedingly picky about the foods they eat.

Some of the behavioral signs of childhood anorexia are often mistaken as typical youth mannerisms. For instance, children who have anorexia are often exceedingly picky about the foods they eat. They might refuse to eat food that is considered unhealthy or that seems calorie-laden, and they can resort to eating only fruits and vegetables in very small amounts. This type of restrictive diet can easily be confused for finickiness, because children are generally seen as fussy eaters. Nevertheless, when children become overly picky and constantly refuse to eat food that they used to enjoy, it can indicate childhood anorexia.

In addition, many children who have anorexia also use exercise as a means for controlling their weight. Although engaging in physical activity is typically encouraged to offset weight gain, children who have anorexia might find ways to exercise excessively. For instance, childhood anorexia might influence the child to practice physical activities — such as dance or sports — for exceptionally long periods of time in order to maximize weight loss. Thus, what can appear to be an intense dedication to a sport or activity might actually be a symptom of anorexia.

In other cases, children who have anorexia make verbal statements that suggest they suffer from the disorder. For instance, a child might talk constantly about the ideal body type that he or she would like to have or might express fears of being overweight. A child might even compare his or her appearance with those of friends or a public figure whom he or she wants to look like. The notion that the child is persistently focused on weight or dissatisfied with his or her appearance can indicate the eating disorder.

Other symptoms of childhood anorexia include increased social isolation or depression because of appearance. A child can also experience extreme tiredness and poor memory function because of a lack of vitamins and nutrients. Furthermore, a sallow, sickly and extremely gaunt appearance is often exacerbated in a child who has anorexia, because he or she is has not fully developed physically. Even generally small weight loss can appear to be an extreme amount on a child.

Childhood anorexia generally strikes girls more frequently than boys, because girls typically face more social pressure to be thin. The eating habits of a girl can also be influenced by her domestic environment. Young girls might hear their mothers or female relatives discuss dieting and might be encouraged to eat less to avoid gaining weight. In addition to the traumatizing psychological effects of the disorder, girls who suffer from anorexia can stunt their growth and impede puberty, their menstrual cycles and breast development.

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