While anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders often surface during adolescence, girls (and boys) can show signs of trouble much earlier.
“Catching these problems quickly can prevent a lifelong struggle,” says Jill Layne, a licensed clinical social worker with Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va.
Some red flags: She’s obsessed with weight. A child might voice an intense fear of gaining weight, comment about feeling fat when she’s a normal size or, if she is overweight, become fixated on that fact.
He sneaks or hoards food. You might find discarded wrappers in his room or notice he’s ashamed of what he’s eaten.
She makes excuses for not eating. Common lines:She had a big lunch or ate right before coming home. She seems to prefer eating alone.
His eating and exercise habits become extreme. A child might refuse anything but very low-calorie options, which can alternate with binges on favorite “bad” foods, and constantly try to burn off calories: running in front of the television, for example, or going for a jog after a long sports practice.
Her appearance starts to change. A child may or may not lose weight. If she’s not getting enough calories, her hair and skin will dry out and her energy levels will fall.
He follows “rituals” at meals. Anorexics might cut food into tiny pieces or keep different items from touching each other. Bulimics will go to the bathroom immediately after meals to purge.
Reassure a child he or she is beautiful — never belittle them or their behavior — and ask why he or she is feeling insecure.
Brainstorm ways to live healthfully without banning any particular foods: a weekly dessert night instead of a regular supply of sweets or family walks after dinner.
Educate her on good food choices and how to follow hunger cues.
Help him find ways to be successful, whether through sports or the arts, and nurture his friendships.
Schedule a checkup with a pediatrician, and if symptoms continue, seek counseling.