Anorexia Nervosa in Children

What is anorexia nervosa in children?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating
disorder. It is a form of self-starvation. Children and teens with this health problem
have a distorted body image. They think they weigh too much. This leads them to severely
restrict how much food they eat. It also leads to other behavior that stops them from
gaining weight. Anorexia nervosa is sometimes called anorexia.

There are 2 types of anorexia:

  • Restrictor type. Children with this
    type severely limit how much food they eat. This often includes foods high in
    carbohydrates and fat.
  • Bulimic (binging and purging) type.
    Children with bulimia eat too much food (binge) and then make themselves throw up.
    They may also take large amounts of laxatives or other medicines that clear out the

What causes anorexia nervosa in a child?

Experts don’t know what causes
anorexia nervosa. It most often starts as regular dieting. But it slowly changes to
extreme and unhealthy weight loss.

Other things that may play a role
in anorexia are:

  • Social attitudes toward body
  • Family influences
  • Genetics
  • Brain chemical imbalances
  • Developmental issues

Children with anorexia are more
likely to come from families with a history of:

  • Weight problems
  • Physical illness
  • Other mental health problems, such as
    depression or substance abuse

Children with anorexia often come
from families that are very rigid and critical. Parents may be intrusive and
overprotective. Children with anorexia may be dependent and emotionally immature. They
are also likely to cut themselves off from others. They may have other mental health
problems, such as an anxiety disorder.

Which children are at risk for anorexia nervosa?

Most children with anorexia are
girls. But that is changing. More boys are now getting it. The disorder was first seen
in upper-class and middle-class families. But it is now found in all socioeconomic
groups and in many ethnic and racial groups.

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa in a child?

Each child’s symptoms may vary. He
or she may:

  • Have low body weight
  • Fear becoming obese, even as he or she
    is losing weight
  • Have a distorted view of his or her
    body weight, size, or shape. For example, the child sees his or her own body as too
    fat, even when very underweight.
  • Refuse to stay at the minimum normal
    body weight
  • In girls, miss 3 menstrual periods
    without some other cause
  • Do a lot of physical activity to help
    speed up weight loss
  • Deny feeling hungry
  • Be obsessed with making food
  • Have strange eating behaviors
  • Be socially withdrawn, grouchy, moody,
    or depressed

Many physical symptoms linked to
anorexia are often due to starvation and malnourishment. They may include:

  • Very dry skin (when pinched and let
    go, it stays pinched)
  • Fluid loss (dehydration)
  • Belly pain
  • Constipation
  • Lethargy
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Being abnormally thin (emaciated)
  • Growth of fine, downy body hair
  • Yellowing of the skin

These symptoms may seem like other
health problems. Have your child see his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Early diagnosis and treatment are vital. They can help prevent future problems.

How is anorexia nervosa diagnosed in a child?

Parents, teachers, and coaches may
be able to spot a child or teen with anorexia. But many children first keep their
illness very private and hidden.

A child psychiatrist or a mental
health expert can diagnose anorexia. He or she will talk with parents and teachers about
the child’s behavior. In some cases, your child may need mental health testing.