Five Things Every Parent Should Know About Childhood Eating Disorders

1) Weight loss in children isn’t normal

Imagine you’re a parent of a bright, active 12 year old boy. He gets good grades and has lots of friends. He excels at sports. Then something changes; he begins to lose weight. At his last checkup his pediatrician registers a heart rate in the low 50s. He starts to withdraw, not doing many things he used to enjoy, with the exception of exercise. He now exercises with a new intensity.

His doctor tells you not to worry. “It’s just a stage”, she says. “Don’t make a big deal out if it, or you might make it worse. He has weight loss and a low heart rate because he’s an athlete.” But you have the nagging feeling that something’s wrong. What do you do?

For nearly two decades Kartini Clinic’s internationally recognized team of pediatricians and therapists has diagnosed and treated more than 3000 children from across the country and all walks of life. And we have seen presentations like the one described above hundreds of times.

Our message is always the same: weight loss in children is not normal and should be investigated immediately.

And weight loss shouldn’t be the only concern. Because children are still growing they need to gain weight. An interruption in their past rates of growth and development is a sign of potential trouble ahead. Your child’s growth chart is a critical diagnostic tool that can provide early warnings. Always review your child’s growth chart with their doctor and remember that averages don’t apply to individuals. What matters most for your child’s health should be based on their unique biology.

2) Children are not small adults

In the example above, with a daytime heart rate in the low 50s, this child’s overnight heart rate could be in the 40s. This is dangerous territory for a child. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ hospitalization guidelines recommend admission with a nighttime heart rate below 45, regardless of athleticism. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because Usain Bolt has a resting heart rate in the 40s, it’s OK for your child to do so.

Childhood is an essential period of growth and development, a time when critical biological systems form. Weight loss – or simply a failure to grow and develop normally – could signal a dangerous disruption to these processes.

3) Parents don’t cause eating disorders (and children don’t choose to have them)

This is our motto, and something we make clear to all families from day one. The scientific evidence is unambiguous. Parents don’t cause a child’s eating disorder, any more than they cause Type 1 diabetes or autism. These are both understood to be genetically inherited illnesses. So are eating disorders.

4) Eating disorders are brain disorders and run in families

How do we know this? Decades of research using twins separated at birth has firmly established the heritability of anorexia nervosa (the most thoroughly studied eating disorder) between 50% and 70%. By comparison, heritability of height is about 90%. This means your height is 90% dependent on your parents’ height. The other 10% comes from environment. Equally, anorexia’s high heritability rate implies that it’s largely a biological brain disease, passed from parent to child, but with a significant environmental component. But like many complex illnesses, we don’t yet know enough about what environmental “triggers” lead some who are genetically vulnerable to become ill.

5) If you think something’s wrong, get help

We always tell parents, ‘you are the experts in your child.’ If you think something’s wrong, don’t let your concerns be ignored, even by your pediatrician. Our colleagues in primary care are in a tough position; they don’t want to overreact. Furthermore, eating disorders are thankfully quite rare. However, most doctors don’t have training in diagnosing or treating them. But they do happen, especially to genetically predisposed children. It’s therefore critical to understand the specific risk to your child. A pediatric specialist’s evaluation is the best way to rule out an eating disorder.