When will COVID-19 end? Am I, or my parents, going to get sick? Will I get back to the classroom to see my friends this year? With so many unanswered questions and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, this past year has been difficult on all of our children.
But for kids suffering from an eating disorder, perhaps the impact has been more severe — and scarier. Eating disorders can often stem from trauma or stress, and the ongoing pandemic is triggering or exacerbating eating disorders for many.
“The combined stress and anxiety is driving kids to increase their eating disorder behaviors because it gives them control in a situation that feels out of control,” said Dr. Jessica Castonguay, an adolescent medicine specialist at Akron Children’s. “Fear of the unknown, and worsening anxiety and depression is affecting their appetite and behaviors.”
For example, teens missing out on social activities with friends is fueling stress eating, and kids with altered sports seasons are increasing workouts, while eating less due to a fear of weight gain. Both girls and boys are taking these behaviors to extremes and are winding up sicker.
In fact, there has been a significant rise in people with eating disorders seeking help across the nation since the start of the pandemic. The National Eating Disorders Association has reported up to an 80% increase in calls each month to its helpline, compared to last year.
Dr. Castonguay has seen the impact right here at home, too. Last year at this time, her office saw about 3 to 4 eating disorder patients each week. Now, that number is up to about 5 or 6 patients a week and they are coming to her sicker.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll get better until we start to have more consistency and knowledge with this pandemic,” she said, “and things become more tolerable and accepted by the younger population.”
Eating disorder symptoms
Though we can’t control the pandemic, we can take control of how and when our kids get help. At the earliest warning signs, it’s important to seek treatment immediately for better outcomes.
Dr. Castonguay offers common eating disorder symptoms to watch for, including kids who:
- Refuse to eat with the family.
- Push their food around the plate, instead of eating it.
- Unexpectedly have dietary restrictions or make new food rules, such as I won’t eat after a certain time.
- Suddenly decide to go on a strict diet, become vegetarian or vegan, or cut out whole food groups.
- Exercise compulsively.
- Become very thin.
- Seem more anxious or depressed.
- Increase talk on weight and body shape.
There are physical symptoms that may point to an eating disorder, as well, including fainting, fatigue, constipation, nausea after eating and loss of menstruation in females.
Eating disorder treatment
If you notice signs of an eating disorder or increasing behaviors, invite your teen to talk about feelings, fears and challenges. Discuss concerns with your teen’s pediatrician or a provider in the Akron Children’s Adolescent Medicine division. New patients will receive a thorough examination, psychological evaluation and nutrition assessment.
If your child is a current patient, it’s important to continue therapy, medical and nutritional appointments. Many medical centers, including Akron Children’s, now offer telehealth appointments.
It’s also important to support your teen at home. Dr. Castonguay suggests:
- Scheduling meals and activities. Add structure to your teen’s daily routine and create a schedule for regular mealtimes and snacks to help reduce unhealthy eating behaviors. Also, make sure to eat with your child.
- Reinforcing support systems. Remind your teen of family, friends and trusted adults who can help in times of need. Some virtual communities may be helpful, too. Dr. Castonguay suggests FEAST-ED.org for trusted support and education for families.
- Encouraging socialization. It’s important to build in ample social connections and to carve out time for hobbies and other enjoyable activities to relieve feelings of isolation and loss of control. Kids can socialize with friends through video calls or outdoor activities.
- Limiting screen time. Set boundaries for screen time and social media. Constant COVID-19 news consumption or other negative media can impact kids with eating disorders.
“With help from health-care professionals and family involvement, kids can regain control of their eating behaviors and enjoy happier, healthier lives,” said Dr. Castonguay, “even in a pandemic.”
For more information or to schedule an evaluation, contact Akron Children’s Department of Adolescent Medicine’s Eating Disorder Program at 330-543-8538.