Ongoing problems with emotional regulation skills in children aged three to seven years may predict an increased risk of developing anorexia nervosa in adolescence, according to a new study.
Findings from the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study of 15,896 young people show not meeting key emotional milestones by age seven may be associated with an increased risk of developing symptoms of anorexia nervosa and atypical anorexia nervosa in adolescence.
Anorexia is a dangerous psychiatric condition that makes people afraid to eat and gain weight.
The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found children whose mothers reported them having low emotional regulation skills, persisting to age seven, may have greater odds of developing the condition by the time they’re 14.
Children who had trouble regulating their emotions at three years old did not have an associated risk increase, but a lack of improvement in emotional regulation across childhood to age seven did show an increased associative risk.
Support with handling strong emotions may reduce anorexia risk
The researchers say the findings may be helpful, as support with developing emotional regulation skills across childhood may be a tool in preventing anorexia.
“These findings suggest that difficulties in developing age-appropriate emotion regulation skills in childhood are associated with experiencing broad anorexia nervosa in adolescence. Interventions to support the development of emotion regulation skills across childhood may help reduce the incidence of anorexia nervosa,” the study concludes.
The study was observational, so can’t prove cause and effect, but the findings warrant further investigation, as early intervention increases the chances of recovery from anorexia.
If you are concerned you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, seek out a GP who understands eating disorders for help.
Eating disorder support
Australia: Eating Disorder Hope
UK: Beat Eating Disorders
For more on eating disorders you might be interested in: Gaps in eating disorder understanding, 9 ways to support someone with an eating disorder at Christmas, The long run: A path to understanding bulimia nervosa, Too healthy for your own good or How to help when eating is scary
Article sources and references
- Henderson M, Bould H, Flouri E, et al. Association of Emotion Regulation Trajectories in Childhood With Anorexia Nervosa and Atypical Anorexia Nervosa in Early Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online July 07, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.1599https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2781375
- Scimex, 8 July 2021 Could emotional development milestones be a good predictor of developing anorexia? Accessed July 2021https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/could-emotional-developmental-milestones-be-a-good-predictor-of-developing-anorexia
- Austin A, Flynn M, et al. The First Episode Rapid Early Intervention for Eating Disorders - Upscaled study: Clinical outcomes. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 29 March 2021.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eip.13139