How To Help Teens Turning To Disordered Eating For Pandemic Relief

A changing relationship to food in social isolation shouldn't be ignored.

“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.

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Hi! I'm Dr. Hina Talib, teen doc and toddler mom here to help your tweens, teens and young adults who are coming of age during this pandemic. . It's so true what they are saying about applying the oxygen mask first to ourselves, in order to support those around us. . Gentle reminder to do this. I am hearing so much anticipatory anxiety about the start of the school year & the likely intermittent changes. . A few weeks ago @kirstencobabe, a family coach, and I teamed up to do a live on helping you face all this uncertainty. It's still there if you would like a listen but I summarized my favorite pearls here. I will also be going LIVE at 8pm EST tomorrow with the amazing @susanzinntherapy as part of a wellness series, join us we will be taking questions. . Breathing or doing whatever works to find yourself in the moment helps me so much. Asking for help or leaning into your tribe (I'm here for you!) is definitely a sign of strength. . Anything you do for self-care right now is role modeling for your teens. So do something for yourself today and then talk about why you did it and how it made you feel. . Happy Saturday! Thanks for following! Please ❤️ above if this was helpful👩🏻‍💻. What's your best facing uncertainty tool- for yourself or for your teens (who have been such troopers)? #raisingteens #teenhealth #parentingteens #tween #teenagers🙄 #pediatrician #positiveparenting #gentleparenting #conciousparenting #mom #momlife #backtoschool #pandemic

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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.

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You need carbs, literally (we just made this into a sweatshirt, link in bio) - In first sessions with clients, we’ll talk about your food rules. Sometimes these feel obvious and sometimes you might think “I don’t have any, I’ve given myself full permission around food” and then, normally there are some that pop up or are still lingering in the background. This is totally normal because 1. For many years or your entire life, these “rules” might have just been normal eating that was validated everywhere and didn’t feel like “rules” 2. Because until we start looking for them and talking about them, it can be hard to identify when, if and how they show up for you. Whatever the case is for you, a really common rule is: limiting bread/carbs throughout the day or feeling like you “shouldn’t” have bread multiple meals in one day. - We can clearly see where this rule has come from - society, tons of bread alternatives, substitutes for every type of grain (with diet messaging, not just for allergies), and diet talk that normalizes avoiding these foods. - My favorite fact to share is that: Your body really likes carbs, it’s our most efficient source of energy. Our brain alone needs ~120g of carbs each day just to function. So carbs are actually doing a really good job of letting us function and ironically helping us make our way through the mental gymnastics of food choices. So yes, it’s completely normal to have multiple carb sources throughout the day at each meal and snack, our body needs that. - Questions for unpacking food rules: • how helpful is this rule to me? • is this rule true? Who made this rule? • what happens if I *do* eat bread/this food multiple times during the day? • what’s the fear/worry of doing so? • do I agree with this rule/want it as part of how I make my eating decisions? - Unpacking and noticing those food rules that come up for you can be a really huge and helpful part of unlearning and moving away from having those food rules control your day. 👏 If you’re ready to ditch your food rules and guilt with an amazing group support - sign up for our last group program for 2020, link in bio! #thewellful

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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.