As a parent or caregiver, keeping food on the table can be an all-consuming task. But are your kids eating that food the way they should?
Recent studies show that eating disorders have surged among children and teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic, doubling among teenage girls compared to statistics before quarantine.
If you have reason to worry that your child has or is at risk of developing an eating disorder, here’s what you should know about supporting them through recovery.
What is an eating disorder?
Many people develop eating disorders as a way to control one aspect of their lives during times where they feel powerless or unsuccessful in other areas.
Eating disorders aren't a lifestyle choice. Rather, they are serious mental illnesses with direct consequences for physical health that can take a number of forms, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Disordered eating can impact people across every age, gender, race and socioeconomic group. Girls and young women can be particularly susceptible to certain disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Biological, psychological and social risk factors can include genetic predisposition, bullying, cultural pressure or disruptive trauma.
How did the pandemic contribute to increased eating disorders?
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered massive increases in various mental illnesses worldwide for people of all ages, with a 25% increase in global anxiety and depression during the first year alone. Major contributing factors include unprecedented stress from social isolation, worries of coronavirus infection, financial and relational impact from work environment changes, and an overall fear of the unknown.
Children and teenagers have been disproportionately impacted by a sense of powerlessness on many fronts, both during the time spent in isolation as well as the period of transition that has followed. Mental health crises have spiked sharply as a result: in 2020, emergency-room visits for mental health interventions increased by 24% among children ages 5 to 11, and 31% among teenagers between the ages of 12 to 17.
Eating disorders consistently comprise a percentage of those visits, according to data collected throughout the pandemic from hospitals and treatment centers nationwide. And disordered eating can take years of recovery, with risk of relapse.
How to support a loved one struggling with an eating disorder
If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, or any kind of mental illnesst, your world can feel like it’s also falling apart. But familial and community support is crucial for eating disorder recovery, especially for teenagers.
Here are four ways to show constructive support for someone suffering from disordered eating: Seek professional help
Given the undeserved stigma around mental health treatment, it may be tempting to try treating an eating disorder at home. But disordered eating thrives on toxic shame, and untrained interventions can do more harm than good.
Instead, seek out reputable professionals in your area for help, and learn about the disorder alongside your loved one to provide emotional support throughout the process. You can also show practical support by providing transportation to and from treatment appointments.
If you’re struggling with the monetary burden of health care, there may be a number of financial assistance programs available for mental health treatments. Some hospitals and treatment centers offer hardship assistance on a needs basis.
Focus on the person, not the disorder
It’s tempting to fix the problem rather than keeping your focus on the person you love, especially if the sufferer is a child or teenager. Yet, "the best way to support your loved one is by acting in a supportive and loving capacity," according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Remember that eating disorders begin as a mental health struggle, so focus on supporting your loved one’s emotions as well as their physical health and nutrition. Self-criticism can be a big component of disordered eating, so lend a listening, non-judgmental ear when they are willing to communicate their feelings or fears. And remind your loved one that they have a life they love beyond their everyday struggles with food.
Help them avoid temptation where possible
Choosing social activities that don’t involve eating or drinking can lessen emotional stress for someone struggling with a food or dieting obsession. If your loved one relies on you to put food on the table, try offering simple, nutritious options that they enjoyed eating before the disorder developed.
You can also provide distractions during and after mealtimes to help ease the anxiety associated with food: Mindfulness, meditation, lively conversation and games can all help your loved one keep their mind off of what they just ate, giving their bodies time to digest the nutrients they need.
Model healthy behaviors by taking care of yourself
Eating disorders can have a genetic component, and unhealthy perspectives on food, weight and body image are pervasive throughout society. As you focus on supporting your child or teen through their struggle, be intentional about taking time to care for yourself throughout the process.
Helping someone through an unhealthy mental state can strongly impact your own emotional health, so be particularly mindful of your own perspective, language and behaviors around self-image, food, weight and exercise. Modeling the mindset you want for your loved one can be powerful for you as well, and will help you provide an even more supportive environment for their recovery.