We are all stuck inside, tensions are high, and fear is off the charts. Our kids already have the highest rates of anxiety and depression we have ever seen. And now it just got much, much worse. During this period, our kids are at higher risk of developing food and body issues, and even full-blown eating disorders.
Because food and body issues are the perfect cover-up for anxiety.
Think about it: we can’t control anything in our lives right now. Coronavirus has thrown off every schedule and plan for the future. Our kids’ school years are canceled. Dances, graduations, and even everyday “boring” school suddenly is something they miss deeply.
And parents are in the unenviable position of having no answers. We can’t confidently predict when quarantine will end. We can’t say for sure that everything is going to be OK. It will, eventually, but we don’t really know when or exactly what “OK” will look like.
So in situations in which we have very little control, what do we reach for? Things that we can control. And right now, the one thing we think we can control is how much we eat, what we eat, and what we do with our bodies.
Eating disorders are devastating. They require intensive treatment. Families who deal with eating disorders will quickly assure you that you don’t want one in your family.
But the conditions are ripe for new eating disorders right now.
Here are things parents can do to help their kids stay mentally and physically healthy during coronavirus quarantine. Our goal is to create an environment that is body-positive and food-neutral to reduce the risk of eating disorders.
1. Recognize signs of anxiety
Food and body issues are often an expression of anxiety. When our kids begin to obsess about their weight or what they are eating, we can often find anxiety lying underneath.
Parents who learn to recognize anxiety early can help their kids navigate anxiety without resorting to maladaptive coping mechanisms like eating disorders.
Anxiety can arise at any time, and for any reason. Most of the time, the symptoms of anxiety are annoying. For example, your child may become suddenly irritable, rude, sarcastic, or begin asking repetitive questions to which you clearly don’t have the answer.
Resist the temptation to tell your child to stop being such a drama queen or to pipe down. Instead, talk to them about how anxiety often shows up like this. Ask open-ended questions, and show them that you are available to support them through their understandable feelings of anxiety and depression right now.
2. Listen for signs of body image and food issues
We live in a culture that glorifies thin bodies and “healthy” food. As a result, it can be hard for parents to recognize the early signs of food and body issues.
But if you pay attention, it will get easier to recognize when your child is slipping into a dangerous relationship with food and their body.
For example, all of the following may indicate a budding obsession with food and body weight:
- I can’t eat that – it will make me fat
- If I start eating ice cream, I won’t ever stop
- You’re only buying junk food – I can’t eat this
- I’m going to come out of this so fat
- Am I fat?
- I’m getting so fat because I can’t exercise and there’s too much junk food in the house
Parents should listen closely for these statements and others like them. And they should address them directly and without shame. It’s important that parents model the fact that food is not an enemy to be controlled. And bodyweight is not the most important thing to invest our time and energy on right now.
Look for ways that you can open up conversations about having a healthy and relaxed relationship with food and body weight during coronavirus quarantine … and beyond.
And look out for times when you say things like the ones listed above. It makes sense if you do, but it’s also unhelpful. Work on your own relationship with food and your body to help your child stay healthy.
3. Pay attention to food behavior
We’re all treading water right now – just doing our best to survive in trying times. This means that your regular schedules and routines are likely out of whack.
Your child may be eating more meals alone in their room. They may be skipping meals or eating more than usual. Parents should pay attention to both of these behaviors.
If your child is skipping meals, forgetting to eat, or eating far less than usual, there are two common reasons for this.
First, anxiety is a known appetite-suppressant for many people. It can be hard to eat if your stomach is cramping from fear. For some people, eating seems impossible when anxiety is high.
Second, social media is filled with memes about gaining weight during coronavirus quarantine. Since our culture aspires to thinness at any cost, these messages can create even more fear about weight.
On the other hand, if you notice that food is missing and you believe your child is binge-eating, that makes perfect sense as well. Many people manage anxiety and feelings of helplessness with food.
Either way, you may be seeing the early signs of a disordered relationship with food and eating.
Try to eat together as often as possible, and keep meals relaxed. If you notice unusual food behaviors, pay attention and take note if they continue for more than a week. You may need to get some professional support to figure out what exactly is going on and what you can do about it.
4. Don’t try to control your own or your child’s weight
When we lack control over our future, we may seek to control our body weight. This is a cultural pastime, but unfortunately, it’s highly correlated with eating disorders.
Despite all the advice on the Internet and social media right now, try to avoid using coronavirus quarantine to try and control your own bodyweight or that of your child.
You want to look out for significant weight changes (up or down) in your child. These may indicate an eating disorder. But otherwise, small weight fluctuations should be expected.
This is a complex concept, but for right now just rest assured that the only thing you need to worry about is truly dramatic weight changes.
Avoid pointing out any weight gain or loss in your child unless you are truly concerned that they have an eating disorder. Otherwise, remain calm, and let your kids’ body be.
5. Get help if you see warning signs
Few parents can address eating disorders on their own. This is especially true given that our kids have higher rates of anxiety and depression than any other generation. Oh, and we’re living through a pandemic and social isolation.
You may be tempted to dismiss troubling food and body issues during this time, but please remain alert and aware. Eating disorders are very hard to treat, but we know that early intervention makes recovery much more possible.
Most nutritionists and therapists are working overtime right now, including eating disorder specialists.
If you suspect your child is developing an eating disorder during coronavirus quarantine, please get support. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a hotline available to get you started: (800) 931-2237
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.