As coronavirus rises, so do eating disorders

As we face the coronavirus epidemic coupled with social distancing, we’re already hearing increases in eating disorders and other disordered behaviors. This makes perfect sense, since eating disorders are a coping mechanism, and if we have ever need to cope with something, this is it!

Our teens are missing out on critical milestones, our college kids are back home and miserable, and our young adults are worried about their careers. This is stressful. And eating disorder behaviors typically increase during times of stress.

Why coronavirus is bad for eating disorders:

  • It keeps us physically isolated from people who help us manage our eating disorders (e.g. therapists, nutritionists, group therapy, friends, etc.)
  • We are stuck together with our families, which can be highly triggering
  • The whole world is completely freaking out right now. Of course we are, too!
  • Food scarcity, which is being driven by panic about the threat of food scarcity, creates added drama around food
  • It can be physically hard to eat when flooded with anxiety
  • Without our regular schedules we can forget to eat or eat to try and soothe our emotional state

Eating disorders may seem like they are about food and body issues. But in fact they are complex mental disorders that serve as a powerful emotional coping mechanism. In fact, they are a form of self-care. But of course they have unfortunate side effects, which is why we seek to heal eating disorders. Our goal is to learn to reach for less damaging coping mechanisms.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating huge amounts of stress, anxiety, depression, and panic. Even people who are typically emotionally stable are finding themselves struggling to uphold their mental health. Anyone who has a history of an eating disorder is at high risk of relapse right now. It makes perfect sense. But ideally we would like to see if we can maintain as much recovery as possible as we go through this.

Parenting for positive food and body

How parents can help kids who have eating disorders during coronavirus

Parents are just as stressed as their kids. This is a tough situation for all of us. Please engage in active self-compassion right now. You deserve so much care and love right now, too. Please reach out for support in any way you can. When you can, please give your child who has an eating disorder a little extra love and support during this time. Here are some ideas:

1. Maintain therapy appointments if at all possible

These are tough times financially, so it makes sense if you are looking for ways to cut costs. If there is any way at all that you can continue your child’s treatment for their eating disorder and any underlying mental health conditions, please do.

Your child may sense your stress over money and strenuously argue that they can stop therapy. They may try to convince you that it’s not even really working or helpful. They are doing this in part because therapy is hard work for them, but also because people who have eating disorders are highly sensitive, and likely sense that you are under financial strain. Of course you would prefer not to have the financial burden of treating an eating disorder.

If you truly cannot afford to continue treatment, we will review some options. But don’t let your child convince you that they don’t need it. They do.

If you are under impossible financial strain, consider the following options before you cancel treatment due to cost:

  • Ask your child’s providers if they can offer a sliding scale for right now. Each therapist will handle this individually, and there are no guarantees, but it’s worth at least asking if you have any options
  • Ask your child’s providers if they are offering special support groups during coronavirus. Many therapists are opening up Zoom groups to support those in need. Even if your therapist is not doing this, they may know someone else who is.
  • Call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline at (800) 931-2237. They can help you problem-solve and figure out options
  • Review the free and low-cost treatment options on the NEDA website

2. Let your child know that you recognize that stress can trigger eating disorder symptoms

Let your child know that times of high stress can trigger eating disorder behaviors. The reason we do this is to let our kids know that it’s OK if they are struggling. We don’t want them to hide their eating disorder behaviors or feel ashamed that they are tempted to use them. And we also want them to know that we are available to help.

Don’t do this just once, because you will most likely get a brush-off. “I’m fine, mom,” is the most likely response, followed by a dramatic eye-roll. But don’t leave it there. Return to this subject in small ways to keep the conversation alive.

It’s OK to check in with your child every day about this. It doesn’t have to be a big long discussion, but you can say “How are you doing today? Is anything going on with your eating disorder that you would like to talk about?”

Your child does not have to engage in the conversation to recognize that you are looking out for their safety and wellbeing right now. While you certainly don’t want to pressure your child, you do want to let them know that you are paying attention and remain vigilant and ready to support them.

You also don’t need to be your child’s therapist. You are asking the question and opening the conversations so that you can direct them to talk to their treatment providers if anything comes up. Eating disorders can be sneaky and tricky, so the more we can bring them into the light, the greater our chance of treating them.

3. Keep an eating schedule

It can be challenging to keep an eating schedule if you aren’t used to it. But if you have a child who has an eating disorder it’s important that you schedule regular eating times.

A major red flag that your child’s eating disorder is acting up is if they skip meals. You want to proactively state your belief that your child needs to eat on a schedule every day in order to try and prevent eating disorder relapse.

Sit down with your family and discuss meal times that work mostly for everyone. These should include at least three meals plus two snacks. Some families add an after-dinner snack or dessert time. Make sure that you schedule at least one meal or snack time that everyone in the family will share.

Next, discuss food preferences for all the meals and snacks and create a family shopping list. It’s important that you involve your whole family in this discussion so that everyone feels as if they are engaged in the process of planning and eating meals. You should not have to carry this burden all by yourself, and you’ll have more buy-in if they participate.

Planning food for up to 2 weeks using shelf-stable foods during a time of high-stress can be challenging. We have seven super-easy meals you can make with almost no effort and just a few (shelf-stable) ingredients:

Depending on your child’s eating disorder behaviors, you may need to accommodate certain food fears. Be aware that these fears are part of the eating disorder, and work with your child to recognize that these are unusual times, and additional structure will be necessary to make it through coronavirus.

4. Connect every day

One of the biggest risks of coronavirus in the digital age is the ability for family members to isolate in their rooms with electronics. Many parents already feel disconnected from their kids due to electronic use, and although we’re stuck in the same house together, that doesn’t mean we’re interacting.

Human connection is one of the most important pieces of mental health. And deep, loving, accepting connection with parents is a healing factor for all of us. Don’t be surprised or feel like you’re failing if you have to insist upon connection opportunities. Most parents who have strong relationships with their kids insist on “together time,” especially when things are hard.

There are a lot of messages out there about just letting your kids do whatever they want right now. This is in contrast to other messages that say we need to rigidly schedule our kids’ days to ensure they don’t fall behind. But these are just two ends of an extreme. This is the same old permissive vs. authoritarian parenting argument.

Verywell / Joshua Seong

A better goal is the “authoritative” parenting role. Authoritative parents take a leadership role without being dictators or allowing a free-for-all. An authoritative parent will insist upon some family connection. This will take practice if you’ve never done it before, but please persist. It’s worth it.

parent coaching

Connecting during coronavirus

Here are some ideas for connecting with kids every day during coronavirus:

  • Take a walk together – just 10 minutes a day is a good place to begin. Don’t have an agenda or expect deep conversations. Just move together side by side and you may be surprised over time at the conversations that come up.
  • Play a game together – pick non-competitive games that feel low-stakes, and keep the focus on playing, not winning or keeping score. Your goal is to spend time together, not dominate each other. So if you can’t keep your cool during Monopoly, pick something else. A good alternative to games is doing a craft project, drawing together, or MadLibs-style games.
  • Eat together – there are no more excuses for not eating together at least once per day. Avoid the temptation to allow everyone to retreat into separate corners of the house to eat. Insist that everyone meet in one room and put devices away for at least one meal each day.

It’s important with all of these activities to have minimum expectations: everyone shows up and is polite. But keep expectations of deep, meaningful communication to a minimum. Your child may or may not open up in any one of these settings, but keep showing up anyway. You need to have a lot of resilience here, since your child will likely resist even if they recognize that it’s good to connect.

These are tough times. Please be kind to yourself as you figure out your own best path forward.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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