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When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

Updated: Mar 7

By Keri Weber, MA, NCC

Parenting is a tough job under the best circumstances. But when your child has an eating disorder, it can become your worst nightmare. And because eating is something that we all need to do every day, an eating disorder can disrupt the entire family.

Fortunately, researchers have found that following some specific guidelines can help the family navigate this illness with less stress and better outcomes.

Communicate Clearly

It is important that your child understands your expectations. Collaborating with your child regarding steps forward can be very effective. For example, instead of saying, "Eat all your lunch," try "We need to increase what you're eating for lunch. What would you like to include?"

Your child's eating disorder therapist or dietician can help with your child's specific needs. Go on to say, "I will help you by making this lunch and sitting with you while you eat. When you are able to eat without a problem, I will step back and let you do it on your own." Your child understands what the goals are and that you will help achieve them.

Whether the goals are about food, exercise, or other behaviors, take small steps and allow your child to participate in how to reach goals.

Remain Calm

Children look to their parents for guidance and support. If you, as a parent, display confidence and a sense of calm, your child's confidence will increase. It helps your child feel that the situation is under control and that you know how to handle it.

Additionally, when you lose your cool or allow an argument to occur, you can inadvertently strengthen the disorder, giving it the attention and control it wants.

Be Firm

Remain firm on goals and steps to get there. Health is not negotiable, no matter how old your child is. If the eating disorder feels any weakness, it will attempt to push back and gain the slightest 'wiggle room."

Make sure your speech and actions convey the degree to which you value your child's health over grades, athletic performance, scholarships, etc.

Externalize the Eating Disorder

Your child's eating disorder is an illness that your child has, just like the flu. It is separate from who your child is. Join forces with your child to defeat the illness.

For example, if your child refuses to eat or is struggling with other ED behaviors, it is helpful for you to state that you will not negotiate with the eating disorder. If your child is not able to eat or meet other goals, state that the illness is getting worse and the child needs to rest, no tv, games, etc., in order to conserve their energy. There are no evening activities until they are well enough to nourish their body and meet other goals to defeat the illness.

Model Healthy Coping Skills

Your child is looking to you to model how they can manage the stress, fear, and other emotions they are experiencing. Engage in self-care, demonstrate your personal boundaries, model effective emotional self-regulation, and demonstrate patience and respect.

Get Help

White Pine Center offers parents sessions to manage stress and learn customized techniques to support their child's recovery while continuing to meet the needs of other family members, and how to recognize relapse indicators.

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