Bulimia in Children

What is bulimia?

Bulimia is an eating problem that causes your child to binge, which means she eats large amounts of food in a short time without being able to stop. The amount of food is much more than most people would eat at one time. Your child may then purge, which is getting rid of the food and fluids by making herself vomit or using laxatives, water pills or enemas. Your child may also cut back on eating or exercise too much to make up for binging.

Most people with bulimia have a normal weight but feel they cannot control their eating. Your child may go back and forth between anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is an eating problem that causes your child to be so afraid of becoming overweight that she eats as little as possible.

Although the disorder can affect males, most people with bulimia are girls.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of bulimia is not known. It may be related to problems with the chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and appetite.

Your child may be at risk of developing bulimia if she:

  • Has a family history of bulimia or other eating disorders
  • Has a family history of obesity
  • Has a family or personal history of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Has a history of physical or sexual abuse

What are the symptoms?

In addition to binging and purging, the signs and symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Strict dieting, trying fad diets, or going long periods without eating in between binges
  • Ritualistic eating, such as never eating in front of other people
  • Exercising a lot after eating
  • Repeatedly losing or gaining more than 10 pounds
  • Feeling weak, depressed, or guilty after binge eating
  • Having heartburn, throat pain, damaged teeth, or swollen cheeks caused by the stomach acid in your child’s vomit
  • Having scratches or scars on the back of your child’s hands caused by scraping her fingers on her teeth when she makes herself vomit
  • Feeling weak, depressed, or guilty after binge eating
  • Constantly thinking about being thin and feeling that weight is tied to self-esteem

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. He will ask about your child’s eating habits and other behaviors.

How is it treated?

Bulimia does not go away or get better on its own. Treatment involves learning healthy eating habits. Your healthcare provider may suggest that you meet with a dietician to create a healthy eating plan. Your child may need therapy to help change how she thinks about herself and food. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a way to help your child identify and change views your child has of herself, the world, and the future. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new thought and behavior patterns.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help reduce constant thoughts about food. Medicines that help reduce depression and anxiety may help bulimia

Your child may need to be hospitalized if her condition is severe and life threatening. Vomiting or using laxatives too often can cause an imbalance of minerals in your child’s body that may lead to irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and death.

If your child has bulimia, she may think constantly about eating for many years. Your child may need to continue treatment for many months. Being under a lot of stress can cause the symptoms to get worse. The earlier your child gets treatment, the more successful it is likely to be.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Support your child. Encourage her to talk about whatever she wants to talk about. Be a good listener. This helps your child realize that her feelings and thoughts really do matter, that you truly care about her, and that you never stopped caring. If your child shuts you out, don’t walk away. Let your child know that you are there for her whenever she needs you. Remind your child of this over and over again. Even children raised in a loving and nurturing home need to hear it a lot because they may feel unworthy of love and attention for other reasons.
  • Don’t criticize your child’s weight or tease your child about the way she looks. Praise your child for her efforts. Also point out to your child that you appreciate other people for what they do rather than how they look.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets the right amount of sleep and exercise every day. Offer healthy food choices and be careful not to label some foods as “bad.” Teach children to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. Tell all healthcare providers who treat your child about all medicines the child takes.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Ask your child if she is feeling suicidal or has done anything to hurt herself. Get emergency care if your child has ideas of suicide or harming others or harming herself.

What can be done to help prevent bulimia?

  • Learn all you can about bulimia. Help your child avoid TV programs, movies, magazines, or websites that emphasize being thin instead of being healthy. Teach your older child to question advertisements or articles that make her feel bad about her body shape or size. Are they are trying to sell something? Is what they say and show true? Or, have the pictures been air-brushed or computer generated to make the person look so perfect?
  • Remind your child to eat a variety of foods in healthy amounts. No single food is always bad or always good.
  • Teach your child that body fat and weight gain are not shameful, and do not mean that your child is lazy, worthless, or a bad person. Also avoid judging other people based on their weight or shape. Never say to your child or others, “I will like you better if you lose weight, don’t eat so much, or change your body shape.”
  • Be a model of healthy self-esteem and body image. Teach your child to accept her body’s unique shape and size. It is much more important to be healthy than to be skinny. Teach your child to value herself and others based on goals, accomplishments, talents, and character.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-06-13
Last reviewed: 2014-01-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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