Covid Nine-TEEN: The Rise of Adolescent Eating Disorders During Coronavirus

We’ve all heard about how kids are struggling to adapt to “Zoom classrooms” and distance learning during this pandemic, but what about their relationship with food and their bodies as well? You, your child, or someone you know might be in the middle of a new and confusing war with their body that was triggered by Covid-19 and all the ensuing changes. We’ve seen a huge influx in the number of adolescents needing eating disorder treatment over the last few months. Why is that?

It’s no secret that teens have always been highly affected by eating disorders and body image issues. They’re dealing with mood changes, body changes, and life changes all at the same time, so it’s no wonder most people identify their EDs originating around puberty. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and we’re starting to see the extra effects this has had on Gen Z and their relationship with food.

Some trends that we’ve been seeing in our support groups are:

We’ve all been in the same boat with social distancing over the last few months, so why has it been hard on adolescents in particular when it comes to their relationship with food? Social connection is at its peak importance with this age group. While we’ve all been feeling that loss for most of this year, it means more for teens who are at the developmental age of needing to be connected with their friends. It’s also natural and normal to want more distance from your family at this age, so teens stuck at home with their parents 24/7 are resorting to more harmful coping methods.

Eating disorders also go hand in hand with isolation, which is magnified more than usual for teens at this time. When treating anyone for an eating disorder, social connection and meals with friends are some of the most important ingredients in recovery, both of which are currently hard to come by.

Another factor that teens deal with more than their adult counterparts is the loss of school. While some adults have had the freedom to work from home in the past, this idea is completely foreign to most American teenagers. This loss of in-person school results in two issues: a decrease in food challenge opportunities and less accountability. Usually in-person school would be filled with natural food challenges essential to recovery, like eating lunch with friends, snacks before team practice, or the class pizza party. 

Furthermore, when kids are stuck at home there are fewer eyes on them throughout the day. The best friend who notices her friend isn’t eating? Not there to speak up. The teacher who sees the kid throwing his lunch away when he gets to school? She doesn’t have the chance to wave a red flag. With so many parents overwhelmed with working from home while parenting, it’s easy for new and old food behaviors to slip through the cracks.     

Anyone, teen or adult, can relate to the increase in depression and anxiety due to hopelessness, isolation, routine disruption and lack of control that have all been mental health side effects from the pandemic. All of our routines getting thrown off (school, work, sense of time) mean that people will be looking elsewhere for control. Anytime anxiety and loss of control are present, we have to be wary that eating disorders are also likely to be lurking. Combine those classic contributing factors with depression and isolation and you’ve got a perfect storm on your hands for relapses or new eating disorder diagnoses.

A ray of hope is that treatment, due to the switch to online platforms, has never been easier and more convenient. If you or someone you know has been struggling with their relationship with food or their body, it’s easier than ever to fit in therapy, support groups, and a higher level of care from the comfort of your own home.  

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