Kids, Stress and Eating Disorders

Stress among children and adolescents is on the rise, and mental health professionals are seeing the impact as more children seek treatment for stress-initiated behavioral illnesses such as eating disorders.

Children today are growing up in what experts say is a more stressful environment than ever before.

“As an outcome of globalization in the information age, children and adolescents are more aware of their surroundings than they ever have been,” said Ovidio Bermudez, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, FAED, CEDS, chief medical officer and medical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center. “This access and exposure can pose serious challenges as children and teens are inundated with fear-inducing national news and anxiety-causing social media interactions.”
Studies confirm this increase in stress among children and adolescents. 45 percent of teens (ages 13-17) say they were more worried in 2009 than they had been the previous year, according to a 2009 report from the American Psychological Association (APA). The study also found that 25 percent of tweens  and 39 percent of teens reported eating too much or too little due to stress. However, only 28 percent of parents thought their teen’s stress had increased and a mere eight percent reported being aware of their child’s eating issues.
Due to the connection between anxiety and stress-initiated mental illnesses like eating disorders , we encourage you to take proactive steps to understand the impact of stress on your children, identify events and situations that may induce stress and recognize patterns of thinking and behavior that may indicate anxiety:

  1. Child stress: personal, interpersonal, interfamilial and global (a stress reaction to national or world news).
  2. Children of all ages are vulnerable to the effects of stress. Although they may internalize stress differently, children at different ages—from toddlers to teenagers—can all suffer from anxiety.
  3. There is no universal response to stress. Children at different developmental stages and under different life circumstances will respond to stress differently.
  4. The burden of stress is cumulative. Just like adults, children and adolescents can only “take so much,” and multiple stressors can become increasingly difficult for a young person to manage. 
  5. Even positive change can be stressful. For children and adolescents, change can be difficult, even perceived positive changes such as starting at a new school or joining a new sports team.

So what should you, as a parent, do?

  1. Be aware of your own stress as a parent and recognize how your words and actions can directly or indirectly affect your child.
  2. Make yourself available to discuss their perceptions of stressful situations.
  3. Talk to your children if you feel that something is causing them anxiety; do not wait for them to vocalize their feelings to you.
  4. Provide age-appropriate information regarding their questions or concerns.

“While everyone feels stress at some time or another, individuals with a genetic or temperamental predisposition toward behavioral disorders will often adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms as a tool to manage their anxiety,” said Dr. Bermudez. “Because disordered eating behaviors such as restricting calories and purging actually release chemicals that minimize anxiety, many children and adolescents use these behaviors to experience relief due to their developmental inability to identify feelings, articulate causes of stress and manage their anxiety appropriately.”
If you see your child exhibiting troubling eating behaviors or body image issues as a potential outcome of stress, seek help from a qualified professional. Early intervention maximizes the likelihood of lasting recovery.

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