Toddlers & Tiaras – The Makings of Childhood Eating Disorders

Article Contributed by Staff of The Meadows Ranch

Young Girl holding a flowerWhy are the incidents of childhood eating disorders and numbers of hospitalization for children presenting with life-threatening eating disorders symptoms rising?   Are Toddlers wearing Tiaras prancing down the catwalk to blame?

How about social networking trends like tweens’ tweeting about their preoccupation with the latest sexy and scantily revealing clothing lines advertising styles for children that are long before their developmental time?

We know that cultural norms and pressures affect kids and that pressures to diet and fit into molds that are unfit for them can lead to vulnerabilities to develop eating disturbances.

However, we also know that One Tiara does not make an eating disorder.

But, our collective emotional temperature gauges begin to rise when we hear of a Toddler & Tiaras episode profiling a girl named Ever Rose. This healthy 8-year old child was put on a diet so she could fit into her Show dress. The episode ended with Ever Rose losing so much weight that her dress didn’t fit.

She did not win the competition, but was awarded for “the prettiest face”. The implications of pressuring a child to restrict her food intake in ways that are not natural for her growing body may have serious implications contributing to developing childhood eating disorders. And, think of all the distorted messages sent to this developing child.

Understanding Social Pressures on Children

Pressures on children to believe they have to restrict their appetites and personalities to be accepted and special are not only woven throughout the social media world but also found in everyday peer group interactions. Like the 11-year old girl who was a vibrant and gifted swimmer.

She lost her natural potential due to joining her desired peer group “Cracker Club” (to be a member you have to eat only crackers), that led to severe malnutrition and depression. Her biggest pressure reflected the importance for her of being part of something, fitting in.

“I just wanted to be popular.  I always felt like I was on the outside. I finally made it in”.  This child could not see her own unique strengths, grace and natural gifts.

These stories provide snapshots of the intense pressures children experience related to socio-cultural pressures.  Childhood eating disorders include many other pieces to the puzzle.

Research proposes there are potential biological markers that outline children’s vulnerabilities toward childhood eating disorders. Genetic factors can make a child more susceptible to developing an eating disorder or having certain character/personality traits that increase vulnerabilities to these psychiatric illnesses.

For example, higher rates of eating disorders appear in children who first manifest childhood anxiety disorders. The expressions of these anxieties aren’t always understood by parents or children and can be hard to detect.  And, the typical symptoms for a child with an eating disorder are often different from adolescent and adults.

Child with childhood eating disorders

For instance, we may not directly see or hear signs of a preoccupation with body weight and shape that require abstract thinking.  Hence, many will not meet the full criteria for diagnosing specific childhood eating disorders and therefore not be taken seriously enough for proper intervention.

Diagnosis can be tricky.  It is important to be aware of any potential signs that may signal a red flag to help determine if a more severe problem or issue is at hand.

A child can present as a “Picky Eater”, a behavior that is often seen as a common developmental phase for many children.  Yet, for those with emerging eating disorders, this may be indicative of a deeper problem.

Influencing Factors on Childhood Eating Disorders

In the face of such vulnerabilities, life happenings can contribute to “setting off” childhood eating disorders. Research has demonstrated that eating disorders often develop as a result of both biological and environmental factors. A child who is already predisposed to having an eating disorder due to environmental factors will be more susceptible under the experience of certain environmental triggers.

Some environmental experiences that can set off a child’s eating disorder include:

  • Loss of a Parent
  • Trauma or abuse
  • A family crisis
  • A move away from all familiar and secure surroundings
  • Stress of developmental challenges and expectations

Other symptoms that need attention as potential indicators of early childhood eating disorders may include:

  • Pica- compulsively craving and eating non-food items
  • Chewing/Spitting- when one regularly chews and spits out their food
    when one regularly chews and spits out their food
  • Rituals of eating – example is pushing tiny pieces of food around the plate without eating
  • Food Phobias- the individual is terrified of a specific, or general category of a food to the point of sometimes not being able to sit in the same room as the food item
  • Malnutrition/Electrolyte imbalances- a serious and sometimes life-threatening imbalance of the precious minerals our bodies need to survive, such as potassium and magnesium
  • Somatic complaints- when emotions and stress are expressed in terms of body sensations, like stomach aches or chronic headaches
  • Compulsive exercising

Childhood eating disorders survivorWhether it is biological, psychological or social media influences, children showing problems in their early childhood are at higher risk for eating disorders later in childhood or adolescents.

It is imperative that we catch signs and symptoms as early as possible. The potential consequences of an eating disorder in children and adolescents are profound and potentially more life-threatening than developing one in later years.

If your child is demonstrating eating behaviors of concern such as anxiety around food and eating, depression, irritability and sudden mood changes consult with your pediatrician.   It is possible that a pediatric dietician understanding eating disorders should be consulted as well.

Other behaviors to be concerned about include obsessing about calories, cutting out whole groups of food, refusing to eat in front of others and rapidly dropping weight or failing to meet weight gain requirements for developmental stage.

If these behaviors and signs are recognized and intervened with early treatment, there is a much greater prognosis for a child who may be recovering and healing from an eating disorder. It is also important to understand that family members are not to blame for the development of an eating disorder in a child.

There can be many misunderstandings around childhood eating disorders in relation to family care; however, it is critical to be aware of the vital and positive role that family members can have in the recovery process. Family involvement is an important part of this process for any child you may be dealing with an eating disorder.

Treating children struggling with childhood eating disorders require a specialized and caring treatment team to help the hurting child and family cope and heal. You are not alone.  There are many resources available to you. Reach out for help today.

Article Contributed by Staff of The Meadows Ranch:

For over 25 years, The Meadows Ranch has offered an unparalleled depth of care through its unique, comprehensive, and individualized program for treating eating disorders and co-occurring conditions affecting adolescent girls and women. Set on scenic ranch property in the healing landscape of Wickenburg, Arizona, The Meadows Ranch allows for seamless transitions between its structured multi-phase treatment. A world-class clinical team of industry experts leads the treatment approach designed to uncover and understand the “whys” of the eating disorder through a host of proven modalities. Providing individuals with tools to re-engage in a healthy relationship with food – and with themselves – disempowers eating disorders and empowers individuals with a renewed enthusiasm for life. Contact us today at 888-496-5498 and find out why The Meadows Ranch is the best choice for eating disorder treatment and recovery. For more information call 1-888-496-5498.. or visit

Edited and Updated By: Crystal Karges, RD on August 29, 2017
Recently Reviewed by: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 2, 2018
Published on, Eating Disorder Information Help & Resources