Supporting a Child with an Eating Disorder in Uncertain Times

A mother and daughter sitting on a couch

Uncertainty is still all around us.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise questions over our finances, jobs, schools, and, of course, our health and the health of those we love. So much remains unknown.

During this long coronavirus blur, eating disorders have not gone away. Far from it. We may have shut down parts of our lives, but eating disorders have not loosened their grip. For some, the pandemic has only exacerbated issues with food and body. For others, it has introduced them, and for others still, it has complicated the already tough, circuitous process of recovering from an eating disorder.

Navigating a child’s eating disorder as a parent can be painful, confusing, and frustrating in the best of times. It’s demanding and it’s stressful. And in a trying year of tremendous turmoil, loss, and unpredictability? It may feel impossible. How can you support your child when racked with fear and anxiety yourself? How do you encourage healing in a world seemingly still so sick? How do you make any decisions or plans when the future is so unknown?

You’re not alone in asking these questions. You’re not alone in avoiding these questions, either, if you feel stretched and strained and just too exhausted to do so. Whatever you are feeling as you try to navigate your child’s eating disorder is valid. And as alone as you may feel, you have company in these feelings.

While many circumstances are beyond your control, getting the information you need is a wonderful first step to empower you to support your child in these challenging times. Being involved starts with being informed about your child’s eating disorder and the help available for you and your family. Here are some basic notes about the current situation for parents of children with eating disorders.

Eating disorders don’t stop in a pandemic.

Make no mistake: Eating disorders don’t just stop, not even for a global pandemic. While COVID-19 has understandably commanded the public’s attention, eating disorders still lurk in the shadows. Personal struggles with food, body, and weight are not negated by any global struggle.

In fact, the pandemic has likely increased eating disorder symptoms. Research suggests that the pandemic has negatively impacted those with and in recovery from eating disorders. An early study including people in the United States and the Netherlands reveals the following:

  • People with anorexia reported increased restriction and fears about being able to find foods consistent with their meal plan.
  • People with bulimia and binge eating disorder reported increases in binge eating episodes and urges to binge.
  • Study participants described “marked increases in anxiety since 2019 and reported greater concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health than physical health.”

Research in other countries shows similar findings as people across the world continue to struggle in this strange “new normal.” There are several reasons why COVID-19 is particularly challenging for those with eating disorders, including:

  • Disruptions to everyday routines of eating, moving, and sleeping
  • Decreased feeling of control/perceived control
  • Increased social isolation or other changes in social support
  • Increased exposure to triggering media, including that related to diets and weight changes, as well as increased reliance on video calls
  • Feelings of inadequacy/insecurity when comparing personal suffering to those without eating disorders

Care is still available.

Fortunately, eating disorder treatment and recovery do not stop in a pandemic, either. The delivery may look different now than it did in early March, but all levels of eating disorder care are still available for your child.

At The Emily Program, we offer OP, IOP, and PHP/IDP programming via telehealth for both new and returning clients. This virtual care meets the high clinical standards of our traditional in-person programming yet allows clients to remain in the safety and convenience of their own homes. (For clients who need residential care, our residential sites remain open with enhanced screening and cleaning processes in place.)

There have also been positive developments in eating disorder care with the shift to telehealth. People who live far away from treatment locations can now access virtual services previously unavailable. And at The Emily Program, family-based therapy (FBT)  in adolescent programs can now take place within the home, where life actually happens. 

You still play an essential role as a parent.

No matter the severity of your child’s eating disorder and the impact of the pandemic on it, you play an important role as a parent. No one expects you to have all the answers to their recovery, much less to “fix” or heal this complex illness. But there are some ways you can support their recovery:

  • Help your child stay engaged in treatment. Know that recovery is a long, trying process, one that requires endurance and compassion. Help your child give it the time and attention it needs by offering kindness and patience as they experience setbacks and successes along the way. Your child’s illness is neither their fault nor yours.
  • Develop routines. Replacing disordered behaviors with healthy alternatives is a key goal in recovery. Routine and structure can help normalize eating patterns and behaviors. When can you join your child in a meal or snack? What activities can you do together afterward, when eating disorder thoughts are often most acute?
  • Keep communication open. Ask your child questions! How are they coping? How has the pandemic felt for them? What’s working and not working in telehealth? How are they connecting with their therapist? Do they have any specific ideas of how you can be more involved or supportive?
  • Help your child avoid or navigate triggers. Avoid comments about weight, appearance, and diet. Even well-intentioned “compliments” or seemingly unrelated comments about your own body and diet are often triggering for those with eating disorders.
  • Take care of your own mental health and wellbeing. In taking care of yourself, remember that you’re also taking care of your child. Self-care is not separate from your duties as a parent but instead a non-negotiable for those duties. When you feel supported yourself, you can better support your child.

Eating disorders are serious, complex, and difficult struggles that are further complicated in a time of collective suffering, anxiety, and pain. Your child is not alone. You and your family are not alone. For you and the millions of families affected by an eating disorder, help and hope are available.

If you believe your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, please consider completing a brief assessment or calling The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 to start the conversation.

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