Unique Concerns for Tweens with Eating Disorders

Body image is a growing concern for those in the chaotic transition between childhood and adolescence. Pre-adolescence or Tweens, defined as being between ages 10 to 13, is a formative time when children begin to internalize social and familial beliefs around the body, food, exercise, and the self. These malleable minds may quickly pick-up beliefs or behaviors that can become more serious disorders if they are not challenged.

Tweens: Don’t Underestimate the Stage

Many do not consider the body image that pre-teens are developing, as the most concerning age seems to be the start of adolescence. However, it is important to know that the pre-teen years create the largest concern for the development of disordered eating beliefs and behaviors.

One study found that “eating disorder symptom score at nine years of age was the strongest predictor of subsequent eating disorder symptoms [1].” Essentially, those that begin to develop disordered beliefs and behaviors in early pre-adolescence are more likely to maintain and build upon these beliefs as pre-adolescence transitions to adolescence and adulthood. The study emphasizes that “this finding reinforces the importance of targeting children with higher eating disorder symptoms in pre-adolescence for possible intervention before they enter adolescence itself [1].”

Body Dissatisfaction in Tweens

The ages of pre-adolescence begin an incredibly confusing time for tweens socially, mentally, and physically. During this time, tweens experience increased exposure to social and cultural beliefs on food, body, exercise, and self-worth.

Tweens Girl sad about Anorexia RecoveryThey also experience numerous physical changes at varying times and levels as compared to their peers. I’m sure all reading can recall the confusion and overwhelm that came from experiencing all of these changes at once.

It is not uncommon for tweens to feel disconnected from, or betrayed by, their own bodies. Body dissatisfaction is a known risk factor for eating disorder emergence and is present in approximately 40% of children ages 6 to 11 [1].

Mental Health & Puberty

As mentioned above, the changes of adolescence can be overwhelming, and they often impact mental health. It is known that a previous or current mental health diagnosis increases the risk of an eating disorder diagnosis. This is also found to be true in pre-adolescents, with some evidence suggesting that “depressive symptoms predict eating disorder symptoms in early adolescence among girls [1].”

Feeding & Eating Disorders

While feeding and eating disorders are not solely children’s disorders, they do predominantly affect this population. Parents often shrug off concerns about their child’s eating habits as “just picky eating” when it may be something more concerning, such as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

For those with ARFID, there is no weight-loss or body image component to the eating disorder behaviors. However, the transition between childhood and adolescence may find a child with ARFID learning from social and cultural ideals of beauty and engaging in their previous behaviors with new intentions.

Children with feeding and eating disorders are more likely to develop eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa in the future. It is important to be aware of your child’s eating habits and relationship to food to watch for warning signs of disordered behaviors or beliefs.


Resources

[1] Evans, E. H. Et al (2017). Risk factors for eating disorder symptoms at 12 years of age: a 6-year longitudinal cohort study. Appetite, 108.


About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.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 February 23, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 23, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.