When will COVID-19 end? Am I, or my parents, going to get sick? How will I fit in with my peers as I return to the classroom and social situations? With so many unanswered questions and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, the constant roller coaster of the past nearly 2 years 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 — and isolation that comes with it — 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 are affecting their appetite and behaviors. Both boys and girls are taking their eating disorder behaviors to extremes and are winding up sicker.”
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a significant rise in people with eating disorders seeking help across the nation. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has seen a 40% increase in calls to its helpline since March 2020.
Dr. Castonguay has seen the impact right here at home, too. Prior to the pandemic, her office saw about 3 to 4 new eating disorder patients each week. Now, that number is up to about 5 or 6 new patients a week and they are coming to her sicker. She said more and more patients are being admitted to the hospital or being referred directly to the emergency room.
“It’s a problem that is only growing and, unfortunately, I see it continuing for the foreseeable future, even when the pandemic gets under control,” Dr. Castonguay said. “Behaviors are often hidden from families, so it can take a long time to diagnose eating disorders. The longer behaviors go on, the harder to break them and the sicker kids get.”
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
Unfortunately, everybody knows somebody. It’s estimated 30 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to NEDA.
If you notice signs of an eating disorder or increasing behaviors, talk to your children and listen to their concerns. Ask them how they are feeling and the challenges they’re facing.
Contact your child’s pediatrician or Akron Children’s Department of Adolescent Medicine to discuss symptoms. 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 child at home. Dr. Castonguay suggests:
- Scheduling meals and activities. Add structure to your child’s daily routine. 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 child 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, option #4.
To better meet the needs of patients, Akron Children’s recently launched an Intensive Outpatient Program for kids with eating disorders. The program holds 3 group therapy evening sessions a week.
To join the fight against eating disorders, learn more about participating in this year’s NEDA Walk on Nov. 7.