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Anorexia is an eating disorder that can also affect children and young people. This means that they may need both support and treatment. Here we explain what anorexia is and how you can get help with treatment.

What is anorexia in children?

Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder that can affect children and teenagers, characterized by an extreme fear of weight gain and a distorted body image that leads to self-starvation and excessive exercise. This disorder goes beyond food and weight; it is often an expression of deeper psychological problems and a quest for control in the individual’s life.

Early detection and treatment is essential to prevent long-term health consequences and promote healthy development. Parents, caregivers and teachers play a key role in identifying signs of anorexia early, such as a reluctance to eat, fixation on body weight and shape, and a general withdrawal from social situations or activities involving food.

Approaching the subject with sensitivity and seeking professional help are steps in the right direction towards recovery.

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What causes anorexia in children?

Anorexia in children is caused by a mixture of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Genetics and brain chemistry can predispose children, while perfectionism, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss of control act as psychological drivers.

Societal ideals of thinness, stressful family dynamics, experiences of trauma or bullying, and peer pressure are environmental factors that contribute to the risk. Early detection and professional treatment are essential for recovery.

What are the symptoms and signs of anorexia in children?

The symptoms of anorexia in children can vary but tend to include both physical and behavioral indications. Here are some of the most common symptoms:


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Physical symptoms

  • Weight loss: Significant and rapid weight loss with no medical explanation.
  • Changes in eating patterns: Extremely restricted diets, avoidance of certain food groups or meals altogether.
  • Fatigue and weakness: General fatigue, weakness, and decreased energy.
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle: Delayed start of menstruation in girls or irregular/absent menstruation.
  • Sensitivity to cold: Increased sensitivity to cold, even in warm environments.
  • Hair and skin changes: Thin and brittle hair, dry skin, growth of fluffy hair over the body.

Behavioral and emotional symptoms

  • Food, calorie and weight fixation: Obsession with food, dieting, calorie counting and body weight.
  • Body image distortion: A strong belief that one is overweight despite being underweight.
  • Physical activity: Excessive exercise, even when sick or injured.
  • Social withdrawal: Avoiding social situations, especially those involving food.
  • Changes in mood: Irritability, depression, or anxiety, especially in relation to food and eating.
  • Self-harm: In some cases, children with anorexia may show signs of self-harm.

These symptoms can have a profound effect on the child’s physical health, emotional well-being and social life. It is important for caregivers to be aware of these signs and seek professional help early if anorexia is suspected, as early intervention is crucial for successful recovery.


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Treatment for anorexia in children

Treatment of anorexia in children often involves a combined approach that includes psychotherapy to address underlying psychological issues, nutritional therapy to restore healthy eating patterns, and medical monitoring to address physical health consequences. Family-based therapies are also key, as they strengthen the support system around the child and involve family members in the recovery process.

To get treatment for anorexia for your child, more severe problems can be referred to a specialist psychiatric clinic through your health care provider.


12 frequently asked questions about anorexia in children

What is anorexia?

Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder that can affect children and teenagers, characterized by an extreme fear of weight gain and a distorted body image that leads to self-starvation and excessive exercise.

What causes anorexia in children?

Anorexia in children is caused by a mixture of biological, psychological and environmental factors. It is a complex problem that often requires multiple interventions.

What are the symptoms and signs of anorexia in children?

The symptoms of anorexia in children include an intense fear of weight gain, a distorted body image, refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, and restrictive eating habits, often accompanied by excessive exercise, food avoidance and social withdrawal.

How can anorexia in children be treated?

Treatment of anorexia in children often involves a combined approach that includes psychotherapy to address underlying psychological issues, nutritional therapy to restore healthy eating patterns, and medical monitoring to manage physical health consequences. Family-based therapies are also key, as they strengthen the support system around the child and involve family members in the recovery process.

Is anorexia in children more common at certain ages?

Children tend to suffer a milder form of eating disorders than teenagers and adults. It is more common among teenagers and rarer in children between 7 and 14 years old.

Can anorexia require specialist psychiatric help?

It is important to get the right support and help if your child is affected by anorexia. There are clinics that specialize in the treatment of anorexia in children and adolescents.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to ill health.

Can you have other mental health problems at the same time as anorexia?

It is common to have other co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, so it is important to have a thorough assessment of the symptoms and a treatment plan that addresses different issues.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a licensed professional with knowledge and experience in working on the well-being and mental health of children and parents. They offer therapy and counseling, but also work with families in parental support and the whole family when needed. They also collaborate with schools to create good conditions for the child.

Can I see a child psychologist privately?

It is possible to see a child psychologist privately. At Lavendla we have several psychologists who have extensive experience of working with children and young people. For more severe problems, it is good to seek help in specialist psychiatry for more extensive treatment efforts, it is possible to get a referral via your health center.

I am having difficulties with my teenager who has developed anorexia, what should I do?

It is important to seek help if you notice that your child has symptoms of an eating disorder. Contact one of our experienced psychologists at Lavendla or go to your health center to get a referral to a specialist psychiatrist.

Where can I go if my child needs help with anorexia?

For more severe problems, you can contact an eating disorder clinic for children and adolescents that specializes in eating disorders. At Lavendla, we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

Treatment of anorexia in children

Treatment of anorexia in children involves a multidisciplinary approach aimed at restoring a healthy weight, treating the underlying psychological causes and promoting long-term well-being. This process may include:

  1. Medical surveillance: to monitor and manage physical consequences of anorexia, such as nutritional deficiencies or other health problems.
  2. Nutritional therapy: A dietician can develop an individualized eating plan to help the child regain a healthy weight safely.
  3. Individual therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in addressing thought patterns and behaviors related to food, body image, and self-esteem.
  4. Family therapy: helps families understand the disease and how they can support the child, and works to improve communication and solve any family-related problems.

The goal of treatment is not only to return to normal weight, but also to address the emotional and psychological aspects of anorexia, so that the child can develop a healthy relationship with food and their body. Family involvement and support is crucial throughout the treatment process.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.