Eating Disorders and Teens: What Parents Need to Know During COVID-19

The pandemic has taken its toll on people around the world, but for teenagers dealing with eating disorders, the struggle can be especially scary—both for them and their concerned family members.

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The pandemic has taken its toll on people around the world, but for teenagers dealing with eating disorders, the struggle can be especially scary—both for them and their concerned family members.

Eating disorders may not be a pleasant topic to think about, let alone discuss, but knowing the signs and taking the necessary measures to help your children navigate their struggles can make all the difference. 

For parents whose children have dealt with or are dealing with eating disorders right now, it’s more important that they provide support and help them continue the recovery process. According to a study conducted in the UK, 87 percent of participants currently experiencing an eating disorder said their symptoms worsened as a result of the pandemic.

Here are some ways parents can recognize the signs of an eating disorder and help their children through their struggles.

The connection between stress, anxiety and eating disorders

Maintaining social distancing and following other health guidelines has been an adjustment for everyone. Around the age of nine, kids start to separate from their parents and form stronger relationships outside the family unit—a hallmark stage in their social development. While some children may already have established relationships they can maintain through phone calls, FaceTime, text and other channels of communications, others have felt pressure—or even grief— because major events like proms and graduations were put on hold or cancelled altogether.

The pressure or grief can potentially lead to increased stress and anxiety, both of which can exacerbate existing mental health challenges—including eating disorders. 

For teens who have dealt with an eating disorder in the past, stress and anxiety initiated by the pandemic can be especially difficult. For example, the food shortages and empty shelves seen at grocery stores during the first months of the pandemic could have increased desires for bingeing or purging and contribute to guilt feelings around foods.

The signs of an eating disorder in teens

Eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are all psychological conditions, but the behavior associated with each can be different.

  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia generally view themselves as overweight, and as such, they’re often underweight. They often have very restrictive diets and though males can experience anorexia, it often affects young women.
  • Bulimia nervosa. Someone with bulimia often binge eats large amounts of food and then purges shortly after. The symptoms are similar to anorexia, but the physical signs of an eating disorder may be less obvious, because people affected may still maintain a normal weight.
  • Binge eating disorder. Similar to bulimia, binge eating disorder is often associated with eating large amounts of food at one time on a regular basis. However, they don’t purge their food and are often overweight.

While the signs of an eating disorder can manifest differently, there are some signs parents should watch for in their teens.

Often, people dealing with an eating disorder experience awareness or anxiety as mealtimes approach. This might include teens excusing themselves from the dinner table during or at the end of a meal on a regular basis, refusing several meals in a row, eating out friends more than usual, or making excuses not to attend meals altogether. A sudden desire to exercise or exercising for hours non-stop are other red flags for this age group.

How to help your teen get help for an eating disorder

If you suspect that your teen is struggling with an eating disorder, get in touch with a professional. While you may not be able to see someone in person, there are a variety of online resources, like eating disorder support groups, that you can access right now.

If your teen has experienced an eating disorder in the past and you notice a return of prior behaviors that once been resolved, document the behavior and reach out to your child’s current medical team for advice.

It’s important to remember that like you, your teen is experiencing disruptions to their daily routines because of the pandemic. They may be feeling isolated, lonely, or even depressed. Staying connected and communicative with your child during this difficult time is crucial. While an eating disorder or any other emotional and physical obstacles can be uncomfortable to discuss, taking the time to learn the signs and helping your teen address their struggles will make a significant difference in the long run.

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