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There are many reasons that children on the cusp of adolescence may begin to present with disordered beliefs and behaviors related to their bodies and food. In the current political, sociological, and technological climate, children and teens are more aware of world events and diet and beauty trends than ever before. Not only that, this awareness has become a key aspect of identity-building both in-person as well as over social media.
A child may begin to shift toward vegetarianism or veganism after watching a Netflix documentary. An Instagram account may lead them to question why they don’t look like an influencer. The feelings of having no control over a global pandemic may lead a child to attempt to find that control in food. These are only a few very real scenarios that make pre-teens susceptible to the development of restrictive eating behaviors and anorexia nervosa (AN).
While pre-teens view themselves as being on the “cusp of adulthood” due to the physical maturation changes they are experiencing, they are very much still children mentally and psychologically. This is a huge vulnerability factor, as it makes them susceptible to sociocultural influences, advertisements, and external pressures regarding body weight, shape, size, and appearance.
As pre-teens experience the overwhelming and confusing changes that come with puberty, their insecurity increases, particularly if they view themselves as developing differently than their peers. In a phase of life where fitting in can feel so important, these changes can make pre-teens feel different and uncomfortable and sometimes leading to an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
As such, they will look more to cultural standards to learn what they need to do, change, or buy. Advertisers in the diet and beauty industry are aware of this and, in fact, often purposely target this age-group for that reason. Family beliefs regarding one’s body, appearance, food, exercise, and self-worth are also hugely impactful on pre-teens’ developing minds.
The average age of onset for anorexia used to be between 13 to 17. It is now frighteningly between the ages of 9 to 12, with children as young as seven being diagnosed . Pre-teen’s bodies are in a precarious state as they experience the “grey area” of no longer being a child but not yet having transitioned physically to adolescence. This places them at particular risk for the physical and psychological ramifications of anorexic behaviors.
“Children have a lower percentage of body fat, which means they get much sicker much faster than adolescents and adults…and because their bodies and brains are still developing, the most severe cases can permanently affect their development — limiting growth potential (and) damaging vital organs (particularly the heart, kidneys, and brain) — even when the eating disorder is eventually successfully treated .” The necessity of preventative efforts and education for pre-teens cannot be over-emphasized, as the consequences of anorexia development in this population are severe.
Despite a child’s reason for altering their eating or exercise behaviors, it is important to keep an open and authentic dialogue with them to learn their reasoning as well as the beliefs they are developing about themselves, their bodies, and their worth. Not engaging in these discussions results in children taking cues from the world they interact with in-person and via social media, and these cues may not be appropriate, empowering, or healthy.
Resources Renkly, M. (2011). The scary trend of tweens with anorexia nervosa. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/08/08/tweens.anorexia.parenting/index.html.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published January 21, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 21, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC