What Parents Should Know About The Uptick In Adolescent Eating Disorders

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
A doctor taking notes about a kid's adolescent eating disorder during an appointment.
disordered eating in teens during covid

COVID-19 has completely upended our world, and not just in the way people might assume. One particular secondary issue that’s arisen during the pandemic is an increase disordered eating among adolescents. This issue began soon after the onset of COVID-19 and shows little signs of slowing down. But why?

Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Bryn Austin, a professor at Boston Children’s Hospital and Director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, who gave insight into the rise in eating disorders during the pandemic and what we as parents can do to help our children.

“The pandemic has had a devastating impact on eating disorders,” Austin said. “Right from the start, this same perfect storm was linked with worsening eating disorder symptoms of purging, binge eating, hyper exercise, and unhealthy restriction in eating. All of this was exacerbated by news media and social media’s incessant focus on weight gain due to the disruption of routines and COVID infection in people with higher weights. As a result, people of all ages — but especially young people because of their high exposure to social media – were bombarded with media messages of intense fat shaming and social pressure to restrict what they eat and to lose weight or keep from gaining weight.”

According to the University of Michigan Health Lab, this increased pressure has more than doubled the caseload of pediatric eating disorders in children’s hospitals across the country. It’s too soon to determine which eating disorders have seem the most increase, but it’s well-documented that eating disorders do not discriminate, affecting all genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations.

“Most of the research is with cisgender females and males, but we now know that gender diverse young people, including people who identify as transgender or gender nonbinary, are also affected by eating disorders at rates similar to or exceeding cisgender girls and women,” Austin said. “In a toxic social environment like this, it’s not surprising that many young people develop eating disorders,” she added.

So what can parents do? First and foremost, Austin said, us parents should model positive behaviors. We need to stay away from things like fad diets and pills. Instead, there should be healthy food and exercise habits at home that our children can use as inspiration. We also need to speak positively about our bodies and teach our children to love their bodies, no matter what they look like. If parents see signs of an eating disorder — such as rapid weight change, anxiety around mealtime and body shame — it is crucial to get professional help right away.

“Eating disorders have among the highest fatality rates of any mental health condition. A teen with anorexia nervosa has 10 times the risk of dying compared to a peer without an eating disorder. But eating disorders are also treatable and preventable,” Dr. Austin explained.

If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, please check out the following resources:

National Eating Disorders Alliance

National Eating Disorders Association,