Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a parent is letting your child learn to make decisions for themselves as they grow and learn. Sometimes these decisions cause real harm to a child’s body and mind. Parents with a child with an eating disorder face a particularly difficult challenge, as they must keep their child healthy and alive while also empowering them to learn to care for their body and mind.

Parents are often quick to blame themselves when a child develops an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. But the causes of eating disorders are very complicated, typically including genetic, psychological, environmental, and sociocultural factors. Kids are at increased risk if they already have a mental illness or if they experience environmental emphases on dieting and the ideal body shape.1 What’s most important, however, is that the parent is a willing and dedicated participant in the treatment process.

It’s imperative that parents take eating disorders seriously because they have a higher rate of mortality than any other mental illness. 20% of people with chronic anorexia nervosa will die because of their condition, and people with bulimia and binge-eating disorder face similar risks.2 Most people think of teenage girls when they imagine eating disorders, but it’s important to remember that young children and boys are also at risk. Early intervention increases the rate of recovery greatly. So if you’re on the fence about whether your child has a problem, it’s best to consult with a professional.

Signs Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

    • fear of gaining weight
    • distorted sense of body image
    • preoccupation with food
    • fluctuations in weight
    • refusing to eat in front of others
    • excessive exercising
    • strange food rituals or behaviors
    • going to the bathroom after eating
    • irritability or changes in mood
    • problems with skin or teeth
    • weakness and fatigue
    • thinning of hair3
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Finding Treatment for Your Child

If your child is under the age of 18, they can begin treatment even if they don’t yet recognize they have an eating disorder. Don’t trust your child to evaluate whether they’re healthy or not, as people with eating disorders struggle to think objectively about their health and often deny they have a problem. If your child is over 18 and refuses treatment, consider using financial leverage and continued conversations to express your concerns. Medical guardianship must be court-ordered and is difficult to obtain, but sometimes it will be granted in life-or-death situations.

If you’re not sure where to get started, first contact your child’s pediatrician for a physical exam and check-up. They can connect you to a professional who will evaluate your child and make a diagnosis as/if appropriate. The type of treatment will depend on your child’s current physical condition, whether they are suicidal, how motivated they are to recover, and whether they also suffer from a co-occurring disorder like anxiety, depression, or substance use.

If your child’s health is in immediate danger, they may need to be hospitalized to recover physically before they can participate in long-term treatment. If your child’s eating disorder is high risk, they may benefit from inpatient treatment where they can be constantly monitored and benefit from intensive counseling services. Intensive outpatient programs or regular counseling with an eating disorder professional may also be the best option. Treatment programs for eating disorders typically involve a combination of medication, individual therapy, family involvement, psychoeducation, and nutrition support.

What You Can Do Today

If you’re ready to have a conversation with your child today about their eating disorder, it’s imperative to stay calm and first listen to what they have to say. Validate their emotions and repeat back what you’ve heard. Then share the facts about eating disorders with them, and what you have personally observed of their behaviors. Express how this makes you feel, using “I-statements.” Remind them that you love them and share what positive personality traits (not physical ones) you see in them. If you can manage your own anxiety and provide a calm space for your child, they are more likely to hear what you have to say.

Above all, remember that recovery from an eating disorder doesn’t happen in a day, and it doesn’t happen alone. Eating disorders are treatable, and with the right support, your child can go on to live a full and healthy life.

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Last Updated: Aug 27, 2018