Supporting Your Child

What are some warning signs that may indicate my child has an eating disorder?

Weight:

  • Dramatic weight loss or weight fluctuations.

Food:

  • Eating small amounts or a very limited variety of food.
  • Hiding food.

Eating:

  • Using excuses to avoid eating (“I already ate.” or “I’ll eat later.”).
  • Unusual eating habits like moving food around a plate, or cutting it into tiny pieces.
  • Always going to the bathroom after meals.

Appearance:

  • Wearing many layers or baggy clothing.
  • Complaining of being fat, even when clearly thin.

Behaviors:

  • Being preoccupied with food, counting calories, “diets”, or recipes.
  • Exercising obsessively.
  • Using diet pills, laxatives, and/or diuretics.
  • Looking at websites that provide eating disorder tips. These are called pro-ana or pro-mia websites.

 

What is the most effective way to approach my child if I had concerns about their behavior?

  • Trust your gut if you are feeling your child may have an eating disorder.
  • Don’t wait to bring it up for fear of upsetting your child. (Eating disorders are risky and much easier to treat in the early stages.)
  • Pick a quiet time and place (not during mealtimes) to discuss any concerns with your child.
  • Be calm and matter-of-fact. Tell your child that you are concerned because you have noticed X,Y, or Z.
  • Make sure to speak with your child using “I” statements. For example, “I’m scared because I feel like you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
  • Then stop and let him/her talk. Just try to listen without interruption or judgment.
  • Initially, your child may be angry or defensive, as denial is a huge part of this disorder.
  • If things get too heated, stop the conversation, but let your child know that you would like to address your concerns again in a few days.
  • After the second talk, state that you would like to have them checked out to make sure they are safe, and in addition, provide them the opportunity to obtain support for any body image and/or eating concerns.

 

What can I do to encourage him/her to seek treatment?

It can be very hard to help a child who doesn’t think they have a problem. You can help by being loving and supportive, but consistent in your message that you are concerned, and that they need to be seen by a professional.

  • If your child initially refuses to see a therapist, start by going to your child’s medical doctor together as a starting point.
  • Next, let your child know that they don’t have to be 100% committed to giving up their eating disorder at this point. It’s normal for them to feel somewhat ambivalent about recovery as they begin treatment.
  • Then, you can definitely help by finding an eating disorder therapist and setting up a first appointment.
  • Offer to go to the first therapy appointment with your child. Just having you sitting in the waiting room will provide comfort.
  • If you know someone who is recovered, ask if they would be willing to speak with your child, to encourage them to follow through with treatment.
  • Finally, if your child continues to refuse, make an appointment for yourself with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, in order to get advice on next steps.
  • Sometimes, as a last resort, parents are advised to use going to college as leverage for going to treatment.

 

How can I best support my child during the treatment process?

  • First, make sure your child has a treatment team who specializes in treating eating disorders. Also, make sure that your child feels comfortable and understood by their providers. A good “match” is really important.
  • Second, let your child know that you are always there to listen. Then just try to be an active listener, however challenging this may be.
  • Remember that the “eating issue” is only a symptom of the illness. Underneath, your child is struggling with emotions. Being able to express these emotions to you and have you validate their feelings is really helpful.
  • Try not to play “food police”. This only serves to make the behaviors more secretive.
  • Don’t comment about appearance at all—not even to say that your child is “looking good” or “healthier”. This can be very triggering for your child.
  • Ask your child about possible “triggers” at home and problem solve together what may help to reduce the intensity of these difficult situations.
  • Finally, be patient. Eating disorder recovery is a long and gradual process for most individuals. Your patient and consistent support can be incredibly helpful to your child during recovery.

 

How do I support myself during this difficult time?

  • It can be very emotionally taxing when your loved one has an eating disorder. The worry alone can wear you down.
  • Remember that while you can support your loved one, you cannot do recovery for them.
  • It’s also important to step back sometimes and ask yourself what you have control over vs. what you do not. Only focus on the things over which you actually have control.
  • Many parents find it helpful to read information about eating disorders and recovery so that they know what to expect. A good book is: Surviving an Eating Disorder: New Perspectives for Family and Friends (Michelle Siegel, Judith Brisman, and Margot Weinshel).
  • Reach out and connect with other parents in the same situation. There are often local support groups or even online communities for parents.
  • Consider seeing a therapist yourself or having a few consultation sessions with an eating disorder expert. They can answer your questions, provide information, and give you support.
  • And finally, know that this is a stressful time for you and your family. Focus on taking good care of yourself. Do you need to escape to a hot bath? Meet a friend for coffee and vent? Taking good care of yourself not only helps you have the energy to support your child, but also serves as good role modeling for the entire family.

 

What are some important things to keep in mind in the big picture and in day-to-day life?

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed at the long road to recovery, but broken down into steps, it can be much more manageable. In the day-to-day, focus on what the next little step in treatment and recovery might be. (For example, is it trying to eat breakfast consistently? Is it trying to go three days without bingeing?). Then, notice and celebrate when your child reaches that goal. It’s so important to celebrate these little victories. While there will be victories, there will likely be setbacks as well. Recovery is rarely a linear process. It’s often more like 2 steps forward, 1 step back. So, don’t panic at any one “slip” backward. Of course, if you start to see a pattern of increasing slips, then your child may need additional support or more intensive treatment.

In the big picture, remember that recovery is possible and that many students with eating disorders go on to graduate and live long, happy, and productive lives. And, of course, while no one wants the suffering associated with an eating disorder, many recovered students will tell you that they are grateful for the ways that recovery has permanently shaped them into wiser, more authentic, and compassionate people.

 

Valerie Gurney, PhD
Clinical Psychologist
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