The pandemic has caused eating issues in many children around the globe. Here's how to help someone with an eating disorder, especially if they're young.
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Eating disorders and children: How the pandemic is affecting our children's relationship with food
The pandemic has been incredibly impactful on everyone—but especially young people. When it forced schools to close and kids to stay home, it drastically shifted their day-to-day lives, and it isolated them from the peers and friends they need to socialize with for development and mental health purposes. COVID-19 didn't only create a pandemic of loneliness in our kids; it also had further mental health repercussions. In fact, experts have seen that one surprising result of the pandemic has been that many young people across the US and beyond have developed eating disorders.
Eating issues became a shockingly common problem in kids who had to spend the first years of the pandemic quarantined at home. However, if you're a worried parent, you can learn to understand eating disorders as coping mechanisms. When you have more knowledge about eating issues, you can better understand how to help someone with an eating disorder. Then, you can also make sure your child's eating issues get resolved. Read on to see how the pandemic has affected children's relationship with food and what you can do if you see that your child (or a child you know) is struggling with an eating disorder.
Adolescent Eating Disorders: The Basics
While the pandemic spiked the number of eating disorders appearing in adolescents in America, eating disorders have long been an issue for American teens and pre-teens.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, even during non-pandemic times, around 5% of adolescent girls struggle with an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder between the ages of 8 and 20. Around 13% struggle with disordered eating, if not a specific diagnosable eating disorder. At any given time, about .4% of young women in America struggle with an eating disorder—and about .1% of young men. Males represent 25% of all adolescent individuals struggling with anorexia across the US, and anorexia tends to be much deadlier in males because people fail to recognize that they also struggle with eating disorders (just like their female peers).
According to research done by the National Institute of Mental Health, at least 2.7% of all American adolescents end up having an eating disorder between the ages of 13 and 18, and the eating disorders most prevalent are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
How Quarantine Contributed to Adolescent Eating Disorders
It's clear that adolescent eating disorders are not uncommon in American youth—and they were an issue that many teens and pre-teens struggled with before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, studies show that the pandemic caused eating disorders to spike. Medical experts at Harvard explain that there has been "a dramatic rise in eating disorders among teenagers over the past year." Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study showing that adolescent eating disorders appear to have doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it may be too soon for experts to know for sure why adolescent eating disorders became so much more prevalent after the start of the pandemic, Harvard researchers surmise that they intensified because teens lost their familiar routines and connections during lockdown. They also suppose eating disorders thrive because of anxiety about the pandemic itself—as well as both boredom and food insecurity that appeared when youth spent so much time in their homes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics adds to the list of potential causes, citing more social isolation and a decreased ability to access mental healthcare at the first sign of duress. Without immediate mental healthcare, anxiety or eating issues turn into a more extreme eating disorder—one that might have been treated and stopped if the teen had had access to a healthcare practitioner earlier.
Want to make sure you're only modeling healthy behaviors for your kids while living in close quarters? Check out Advanta Heath. They help companies incentivize wellness in their employees, and can motivate you to move your body for physical and mental health, which will keep you well so you can be there to take care of your family.
COVID-19 and Children's Mental Health
COVID-19 did not just increase eating disorders among American adolescents. The pandemic seemed to also cause a significant rise in general mental health issues across the board. Researchers at UNC found that adolescent depression, irritability, and self-injury greatly increased during the first 6 months of the pandemic. Frontiers in Pediatrics also published a study showing significant increases in depression and anxiety, even in teens who had not suffered from depression or anxiety (or any mental health issue) before the pandemic began.
Experts attribute this adolescent mental health crisis to the same issues that caused the rise in eating disorders among American youth. Isolation from friends and social connections, genuine and persistent boredom, and feelings of anxiety about the virus all sparked more severe mental illness in teens and pre-teens. Also, a sense of hopelessness set in for American adolescents as the pandemic persisted, which often morphed into lasting depression in teens who would not have otherwise become depressed.
Mental health is not just nurtured in a therapist's or psychiatrist's office. It has to do with how we move and treat our bodies. Advanta Health encourages more professionals to incorporate fitness into their lives and improve their wellbeing—both mentally and physically. Let your employer know about Advanta Health to incentivize fitness at your work, and provide you with rewards that help keep you motivated so you keep your body and your mind well.
How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder Post COVID-19—Especially Your Child
If you suspect your child or a child you know might be suffering from an eating disorder due to COVID-19, you should learn how to help someone with an eating disorder. That way, you can intervene as early as possible, ensuring that this deadly mental illness does not do permanent harm to a child's growing body. First, assess the child for signs of an eating disorder. These can vary greatly depending on which eating disorder may have developed, but you should look for any of the following:
• An aversion to food
• Skipping meals
• Becoming incredibly picky
• Developing thin, fuzzy hair on arms and legs
• An obsession with "healthy" eating
• Frequent trips to the bathroom during and after meals
• Stains on teeth that were not there before
• A refusal to eat foods they once loved
• Dramatic weight loss
• Eating unusually large amounts of food in one sitting
• Finding large amounts of food gone from your kitchen or pantry overnight
If you think your child might be struggling, how to help someone with an eating disorder is to contact a trusted mental healthcare practitioner that specializes in eating disorders. Do some research online or ask around in your community. If you can't find the right psychotherapist, give your child's doctor a call. They can assess your child for a problem with eating, then set up a treatment team that will tackle the issue with your kid. The treatment will include educating the family about the problem and having the family guide how the adolescent eats; having the child visit a nutritionist to teach them about adequately feeding themselves; talk therapy with a psychotherapist who can help them understand the root of their behavior and develop better coping mechanisms, and more.