“Eating our feelings” has been a running theme for many coping with mental health struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many isolated teens, however, eating too much or too little has become a constant source of stress.
Helplines have seen a spike in calls related to disordered eating since March: Teens are calling Kids Help Phone in Canada about food and their body image more than any other issue. Those who were previously in sports are especially at risk; sports nutritionist Jennifer Sygo told CTV News in Canada that many young athletes have turned to controlling what they eat, in the absence of their regimented lives.
This all falls in line with a recent U.S. academic review on adolescents, which found that the pandemic has worsened stressors linked to eating disorders: Depression, social isolation, money worries, trauma, and problems at home.
If you’re worried about your teen’s eating and want to help them cope, here’s what you should know.
Eating could be their way of asserting control
The pandemic has greatly increased feelings of helplessness in our lives, which is a big factor when it comes to disordered eating and more severe eating disorders like anorexia. Aryel Maharaj of Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre told CTV News that many teens calling the center have described how controlling what they ate made them feel better.
“I guess I’m feeling out-of-control of life circumstances right now and eating, and weight, is what I can control,” was how Maharaj summed up the theme of their calls.
Some teens may also feel pressured to control their food intake because of online communities and pandemic weight gain jokes; a teenager interviewed by Good Morning America said jokes that gaining more pounds, or “the COVID 15,” led her to unfollow social media accounts.
Disordered eating isn’t always skipping meals
Psychology Today lists feeling anxiety over certain food groups, body dysmorphia, avoiding meal times, and obsessing over calories as possible signs.
ScaryMommy writer Clint Edwards notes that he’s seen his son over-eat more throughout the pandemic.
“Like, it feels like he eats 800 meals a day … [it] has me worried about how much of this is hunger, and how much of it is just him trying to gain control of what feels like an out-of-control life,” Edwards wrote.
Teens may also show signs through what they say. Adolescent medicine specialist Hina J. Talib told the Science Times that hearing phrases like “I am so fat” and “If I gain weight, I will be disgusting” said often should be taken seriously.
Anybody can be at risk
Parents might believe that their child’s eating habits aren’t a problem unless they’re underweight, but that’s untrue, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Young people of any weight, ethnicity, and gender are at risk, with long-term health consequences waiting for those who go untreated, according to The New York Times.
“Without a proper diagnosis and intervention, young people with distorted eating behaviors can jeopardize their growth and long-term health and may even create a substance abuse problem,” the paper reported.
It helps if kids feel less uncertain and alone
Mental wellness strategies like making self-care routines together and encouraging open conversations about feelings can help parents support teenagers who feel out of control.
They may also find comfort in online communities. If so, unfollowing people that make their disordered eating tendencies flare up, such as those that promote unrealistic beauty standards, can be helpful. Substituting those accounts with disordered eating recovery resources may enforce more self-compassionate thoughts and behaviors.
Many recovery pages share body-positive content teens may find uplifting when they’re feeling down or struggle with eating issues.
Kids Help Phone and similar initiatives have counselors who can listen to teens without judgement and connect them to resources if needed. And as with any emotional or mental struggle, know that it’s OK to reach out for help from a professional — like a virtual appointment with a family therapist or treatment centre — if needed.
This article originally appeared in HuffPost Canada.