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Better emotional regulation may protect kids against anorexia

Girl screaming at mother

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.

Study limitations

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

NZ: edanz
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

Date modified: 22 July 2021
First published: Jul 2021


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