Specialized center at Children’s Mercy helps younger patients treat eating disorders

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Caroline Ayres is 16 years old, and she's involved in multiple school activities and thinking about college. But when Caroline was 11 years old, though, she was dealing with something she didn't really know how to describe - an eating disorder.

“I feel that subconsciously I knew the reason I wasn`t eating wasn`t just because my stomach was hurting,” said Caroline.

At first, Caroline said it started with a nervous stomach. She didn't want to eat because she thought it'd just upset her stomach more, and her mom wasn't concerned at first.

“The nervousness and anxiety got worse over the course of the summer, and her stomach always hurt, so she ate less, and the less she ate the less she wanted to eat. And I didn`t suspect an eating disorder for a few months because she was still doing everything, she went to camp, she was playing sports. It wasn`t until the fall that I realized how little she was eating,” said her mom, Suzy Ayres.

Dr. Kathryn Pieper from Children's Mercy's Eating Disorder Center says her patients are getting younger and younger.

“I think there is an increased awareness, but the age has been going down in terms of when the onset has occurred,” said Dr. Pieper, the Director of the Eating Disorder Center.

She says, there is no one specific cause, it varies from person to person.

“There are a lot of social and cultural pressures that play a huge part in terms of how body conscious kids are younger and younger,” she said.

“Caroline`s anxiety was a big trigger for her eating disorder,” said Suzy.

Caroline got help through the Children's Mercy Eating Disorder Center and through an inpatient treatment center in Colorado.

“It`s certainly not a sprint. It`s a marathon, and sometimes it`s a marathon on a roller coaster,” said Suzy.

Now Caroline and her mother, Suzy, talk openly about eating disorders, which is a good approach according to Dr. Pieper.

“Eating disorders thrive with shame and secrecy,” said Dr. Pieper.

And know the signs so you can identify them in a loved one and get them help.

“There may be an obvious weight loss, that might be the first marker, there may be an avoidance of eating situations, or tantrums or rigid behaviors around food.

There may be a lot of anxiety and difficulty following through with tasks or activities that a child was previously involved in, and that may coincide with restrictive eating,” said Dr. Pieper.

Through treatment Caroline has a future, one she never imagined.

"I know I`m a lot mentally stronger, I feel like I can deal with almost anything that comes at me,” said Caroline.

One big myth regarding eating disorders is the idea that having an eating disorder is a choice.

Dr. Pieper wants people to know it is not a choice - it is an illness.

To find out more, click on this link for the Children's Mercy Eating Disorder Center or this link for NEDA.