Food-related trauma is a severe issue that affects people of all ages. It is especially concerning when it occurs in childhood, as it can have long-term impacts on mental and physical health. Let’s explore the topic of food trauma in childhood and how it can affect individuals as they grow. We’ll also discuss some tips and resources for those who have experienced childhood food trauma and their caregivers to help manage and treat the condition.
Trauma and Disordered Eating in Children
While we have learned a great deal regarding the links between trauma and the development of disorders in adults, there has been less focus on the same issues in children. Many of us do not like to consider children suffering harm or harmful treatment, but as much as we do not want to think of this, children suffer trauma. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that children experience stressful or harmful events that may have a lingering impact on their emotional and psychological well-being.(1) Like adults, children experience or witness many circumstances that may cause trauma, including the damaging effects of familial relationships.
Experts note children do not always express trauma responses in the same ways as adults.(2) These traumatic occurrences do not need to come in the form of specific events; rather, children can develop post-traumatic stress responses from ongoing exposure, including neglect in relationships. The Spartan Medical Research Journal highlighted the impact of childhood trauma and the development of eating disorders in young athletes was well publicized when gymnast Simone Biles and teammates approached the U.S. Congress to share the effects of years of abusive behavior at the hands of coaches. It also noted the link between the emergence of eating disorders and athletics, particularly if their coaches placed excessive demands on them.(3)
Eating disorders in children present similarly to how they do in adults, and the same diagnoses apply.
Children may be diagnosed with anorexia when they eat very little, fear weight gain, or have a distorted body image. Children living with bulimia may binge eat or over-exercise to “make up” for what they have eaten. (4)
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
Children may also have avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which occurs when they show little interest in food or eating and may lose weight or delay developmental weight gain milestones. However, they do not demonstrate symptoms of anorexia, such as distorted body image or fears of weight gain (4).
Pica is an eating disorder where the child eats things that are not food; this is not the same as the curious youngster who might put items in their mouth. Rather the child suffering from pica will eat many substances, which poses significant health risks.
Survival Behaviors with Food and Caregiving Insecurity
It can be challenging as a parent to identify if a child is developing an eating disorder or if this is normal developmental behavior, as some children go through stages in which their eating habits change. Parents may feel guilt regarding their child’s eating disorder. It is normal to experience these feelings and to be uncertain of one’s ability to support your child through this experience. The critical factor for you as the parent is that you know your child and recognize when things may not seem right.
Treatment for Food-Related Trauma
As with adults living with eating disorders, the key to addressing eating disorders in children is recognizing there is an issue and getting help. It is essential to talk to your child and ask what is going on; tell them that you love them, you are there for them, and they are not in trouble, abut you are concerned by what you see. If you suspect something is happening with your child or know they have experienced a traumatic event, seek help as soon as possible. Treatment of a child suffering from food-related trauma requires the support and engagement of all members of the family.
It can be challenging to parent a child with an eating disorder; however, try to be as patient and supportive as possible. As difficult as this is for you, it is also hard for your child.
Finally, seek the care and support of skilled professionals who can assess and treat trauma and eating disorders in children. The critical step is finding help for you and your child, and Shoreline can help. Call us at 562-434-6007 or complete our contact form.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2022). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Children’s Health. Retrieved online at www.cdc.gov
- Miller, C. (). How Trauma Affects Kids in School. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved online at www.childmind.org
- Mancine, R., Kennedy, S., Stephan, P., & Ley, A. (2020). Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders in Adolescent Athletes. Spartan Medical Research Journal. 4, (2). DOI:10.51894/001c.11595.
- Gavin, M. (2021). Kids Health: Eating Disorders. Retrieved online at www.kidshealth.org.
Kim is a Nursing Professor and has been teaching nurses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2002. Kim has supported a family member through the lived experience of eating disorders and works to advocate for support in rural areas.