New research from Bupa UK shows how the pandemic has raised awareness of eating disorders in younger generations. Teenagers have turned to harmful coping mechanisms to manage their mental health during the pandemic, including controlling or restricting their food intake.
- 46% of teens surveyed had altered their eating habits during lockdown
- 84% admitted to restricting food for a sense of control
- 41% of teens reported the same sense of control from eating more
- 125% increase in searches for anorexia in children’ on Google over the last year
- According to the BBC, there has been a recent 50% rise in under-20s in hospital for eating disorders
Here Bupa’s Mental Health Advisers, Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton, share the potential warning signs of an eating disorder, as well as guidance on recovery and self-care. They also share advice on how to talk to your children about eating disorders.
Why has there been a rise in eating disorders?
Harriet Finlayson, Specialist Mental Health Nurse Adviser for Bupa UK, says, “COVID-19 may have made eating difficulties worse for some children and young people because of increased anxiety, stress, and a change in their usual routine. Changing your eating habits every now and again is natural. But if food and eating feels like it’s taking over your child’s life, it may develop into a disorder.
“With lockdown causing so many of us to limit our social contact, social media became a common go-to for many to ‘pass the time’. Increased social media use can put children at a risk of looking at unhelpful and negative social media accounts, which can further fuel any mental health struggles.
There is also some evidence that those with disordered eating have found lockdown problematic because they have a lack of routine, as well as continuous access to food. This is particularly true for people who eat or restrict foods in response to stress. Spending a lot of time together may also mean that you have noticed eating habits in your child that you hadn’t before”.
How to talk to your children about eating disorders
Our recent study found that one in three teens found it difficult to talk about their feelings with parents.
Danielle Panton, Specialist Mental Health Nurse Adviser for Bupa UK, shares her advice on talking to your children about your worries.
Find a calm, quiet space
Your first step should be to create a safe space where your child will feel most comfortable. It doesn’t always have to be a face-to-face conversation, as these can be overwhelming and difficult. Instead, there are alternative ways to communicate, such as a text message or letter, which can give you the time and space to express what you want to say. This can also give your child greater control over how they respond, and what they respond with.
Validate their feelings
Even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, it’s important to validate your child’s feelings. Avoid giving advice or criticism because this could prevent your child from opening up. Simply let them know that they’re being heard.
When speaking with your child, try to stick to the facts of what has been observed in the changing of eating habits and behaviours rather than making assumptions. Don’t minimise their feelings or try to brush them off, either.
Listen to their worries
You could ask your child if there’s anything that’s making them feel anxious or stressed which is having an impact on their eating habits. Opening up can take time, but it’s important to remain calm and listen to them without judgement, and when they’re ready.
With the right eating disorder support and guidance, your family can regain your health and wellbeing. It’s important to find the treatment that works best for your child, as it can help them develop healthy, balanced eating patterns in the long-term.
An important part of finding suitable treatment is by first speaking to your doctor. They will be able to refer you to specialist eating disorder support for both your child and your family.
Look after yourself
You may feel frustrated that your child isn’t eating healthily, feel worried that it’s happening because of something you’ve done, or feel like you’re not doing enough to help them get better. But try to not blame yourself for the situation and make sure you put aside some time for yourself and your mental health – it could be something as simple as a workout or reading a book.
Eating disorder support: Steps to recovery
With the right eating disorder support and guidance, it’s possible to get back on the path to health and wellbeing.
Here Harriet Finlayson, Specialist Mental Health Nurse Adviser for Bupa UK shares her steps to recovery:
Find the right treatment
It’s crucial to find the treatment that works best for you and your child, as it can help them develop healthy, balanced eating patterns in the long term. An important part of finding suitable treatment is first speaking to your doctor. They may be able to refer you to specialist eating disorder support for both your child and your family.
Take the focus off food
Even though food itself isn’t the problem with an eating disorder, developing a healthier relationship with food is an important step to recovery. When you’re eating a meal, divert attention by talking about the events of the day, or what’s been on TV. Reduce added pressure on your child by taking greater control of their food; for example, by offering less choice.
Watch out for triggers
It’s important that your child learns how to cope and manage any triggers that arise in their everyday life. As part of their support network, be mindful that topics around food, body image and dieting may naturally come up in conversation. Where you can, avoid talking about these topics at mealtimes.
It’s important that your child finds a coping strategy to ease any discomfort. For example, if you can identify the events, people and situations that trigger negative emotions, you can help to avoid that trigger or prepare a way to handle it in future.