Since March 2020, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline has had a 40% increase in overall call volume. 35% of the callers were 13 to 17 years old. This represents a 30% increase in calls over the preceding year for teenagers.
Why are Teen Eating Disorders Impacted by the Pandemic?
In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Walter Kaye, founder of the eating disorders program at the University of California, San Diego said, “Many of the things that structured a teenager’s life evaporated in one fell swoop.” In other words, everyone lost structure during the pandemic, but adolescents were isolated from the support of friends. They also lost the day-to-day rhythm of the school schedule. We cannot underestimate the importance of rhythm for the developing brain. Rhythm and routine are essential to healthy brain development.
Reasons Teen Eating Disorders Increased (NYTimes.com)
- Stress sensitivity is one of the causes of disordered eating. The uncertainty of the pandemic was a stressor for teens.
- Further, teens with eating disorders are often high achievers. COVID-19 shut down athletic pursuits and shook up the normal academic scheme. Teens have had too much time on their hands and in their heads.
- At home, food is always available and emotional eating due to boredom and stress is a coping mechanism that can lead to eating disorders.
- Food insecurity heightens anxiety. In homes where food is scarce, there is more likelihood of fasting, skipping meals, and using laxatives and diuretics.
- The increase in social media use is also a factor. Comparing body images (and lives in general) on Instagram and looking for guidance online is dangerous to teens. Posts celebrating thin bodies and the algorithms that follow with advertisements are problematic for those struggling with body image.
We are seeing the same phenomenon in Western Michigan. Eating disorders are on the increase, due in part to the pandemic. And we have too few resources to get everyone the treatment they need.
Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, CEDS-S, Executive Director, Sanford Eating Disorder Services
What to look for…
Eating disorders don’t discriminate. Adults, teens, male, female, transgender and gender nonconforming individuals are all susceptible to eating disorders. But with the rise in eating disorders in teens, adults should be on the lookout for uncharacteristic behaviors like skipping meals, or obsessive exercising or dieting. And if a child loses 10 to 20 pounds suddenly or becomes secretive about food, it is time to talk.
- Ritualistic behavior around food
- Preoccupation with food or certain types of food
- Cutting food into small bites
- Moving food around the plate
- Using the bathroom or isolating from others after meals
- Changes in mood
- Food wrappers under the bed, in couch cushions or other inconspicuous places
- Perfectionistic behaviors.
How to Respond/Help
If you are noticing physiological changes like sudden weight loss, changes in skin color, brittle hair or hair falling out, bad breath, and/or inconsistent menstrual cycles, it is time to get professional help immediately. First, get them in to see their primary care physician to monitor their vitals. Communicate your concerns clearly to the doctor. Likewise, explain the behaviors or changes you are seeing.
Teens can be secretive in the best of times, so adults should be diligent. Be attuned to small changes and don’t be afraid to ask questions of your children. Be curious. Let them know you see them, and you are there to support. Have meals together as a family as much as possible. Eating together is an attachment experience, make it pleasurable.
Help them create new ways to have rhythm, and routines incorporated into their day as a way of creating balance. Fill the extra time with healthy activities. Minimize social media access and talk about the negative side of social media. The book Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age is a great guide to these conversations.
The past fourteen months have been tough for everyone. Empathize with adolescents and validate their feelings about the losses they have experienced over the last year. Educate yourself on the co-occurrence of eating disorders and substance use. Check out the emotion coaching section on this helpful website: Emotion Focused Family Therapy. And when talking to your teens, first focus on and attune to what is under the problem behaviors. Eating disorders usually grow out of feelings like fear, grief, anxiety, depression, pressure, etc. Helping your loved one move through and resolve the underlying issues will be key to both prevention and recovery.
For more information on eating disorders:
Body Positivity – 10 Things Parents Can Teach Their Children, By Gail Hall, LMSW, DCSW, EDS-S, January 28, 2021