Is my child ready to return to school?
Once your child returns home after eating disorder treatment, you may be wondering if they’re ready to return to school yet, and this is a valid question. School is an extremely unpredictable environment, rife with conflict and pressure. Plus, although there are school nurses, you won’t be able to monitor what they’re eating while they’re at school all day, which can understandably be very stressful for you. Here are some indicators that your child is ready to return to school:
- They are able to tolerate changes in food options, scheduling, and other unexpected changes
- They are able to concentrate on various tasks at hand, as opposed to obsessing over eating disorder-related thoughts
- They are communicating openly about their disordered eating symptoms and urges
- They regularly use coping skills to avoid engaging in disordered eating behaviors, such as binging, purging, or excessive exercise
- They eat appropriate meals regularly with little to no support
- They reach out to you or other members of your support system if they need help
- They are able to challenge cognitive distortions related to food and exercise beliefs
Supporting your child is a collaborative effort. If you aren’t sure whether they are ready to go back to school or not, you can consult their treatment team to get their thoughts on the matter. Together, you can decide when it is appropriate to send them back to school.
How can an eating disorder affect school performance?
There are several ways an eating disorder can impact a student's performance at school. For example, poor nutrition can lead to difficulty concentrating or lack of energy.
Possible triggers at school
No matter how much you wish for a trigger-free environment for your child, they’re going to inevitably encounter triggers. It’s unavoidable, but what you can do is prepare your child for possible situations that may arise. You will also want to be aware of these challenges so that you can have a plan in place for how to offer more support to your child. It can also be important to communicate regularly with specific faculty members at school to stay in touch about your child’s recovery.
How to support your child’s recovery
While you can’t fix or heal your child’s eating disorder on your own, you can play a major role in their recovery. Your child needs a strong support system to encourage, empower, and uplift them, people who won’t shame or blame them for their condition or impulses.
Use body-positive language
Supporting your child’s eating disorder recovery starts with how you talk about yourself and others. Embrace and demonstrate body positivity or body neutrality. Avoid talking about dieting, your weight, or your clothing sizes. Show your child that you love, accept, and are grateful for the body you live in. And avoid commenting on other people’s weight or body size, whether they are strangers, celebrities, athletes, or otherwise.
Practice and teach mindful eating habits
Mindful eating involves using your five senses to promote awareness while you eat. It means that you are giving your full attention to your meal. It can also involve gratitude for where your food came from, the opportunity to enjoy such delicious food, and the company you keep. Teach and foster mindful eating for the whole family and make mealtimes about truly experiencing and enjoying the food.
As an added bonus, if you have the means and space, you may want to work on a garden with your child. Then they can see where their food came from and feel pride and accomplishment in helping with growing their own food.
Practice a compassionate and non-judgmental approach
It can be easy to stay positive when things are going well, but it can be more difficult to practice compassion and avoid judgment when your child is stressed or triggered, or experiencing negative emotions. No matter what, your support must come from a place of empathy and compassion. Listen first, and allow yourself to fully process before responding.
Ask your child how they would best like to be supported—sometimes people just want to vent, while other times they may be looking for advice. Never blame your child for what they are experiencing. Instead, use “I feel” statements when talking to them about their eating disorder symptoms or behaviors. Assure them that they can always come to you, no matter what they are struggling with.
Organize family activities that don’t center on food
Make a point to organize family activities that don’t center around food, such as going to the park, planning a game night, shooting hoops, watching live music, going for a nature walk, and more. Activities that don’t involve food can take some of the pressure off of your child, especially in early recovery. It also gives you a chance to connect through joy and appreciation.
Prioritize regular therapy sessions
Just because your child has completed an eating disorder treatment program, that doesn’t mean that the work is done. Recovery is a lifelong process, and everyone’s journey looks a little different. It’s important for your child to receive ongoing professional care, such as therapy, so they can build upon the skills they learned in treatment and have a resource for dealing with issues that may arise. Start out with two or three therapy sessions per week, and over time, you may be able to reduce the frequency. Be sure to always follow the guidance of your treatment team.
Know the warning signs of eating disorder relapse
Lastly, it’s important to educate yourself on the signs of an eating disorder relapse so that you can get your child help sooner rather than later. Generally, a relapse means that your child has returned to a pattern of disordered eating behaviors. Beyond observable behaviors, your child may be struggling emotionally and mentally, which can be difficult to detect if they are good at hiding their distress.
Some signs of an eating disorder relapse may include:
- Checking their weight regularly
- Avoiding social activities
- Sleeping much less or more than usual
- Hiding information from you
- Checking their appearance in the mirror
- Isolating themself from family and friends
- Appearing guilty or ashamed after eating
- Exercising excessively
- Eating alone on a regular basis
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing
- Taking frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
- Expressing eating disorder beliefs, like needing to burn off calories
If you are worried that your child has relapsed, don’t panic. Approach them from a caring place and gently ask how they are feeling and if there’s anything they’d like to talk about. Use “I feel” statements and make sure that your child understands you are approaching them because you are concerned and want to find the best way to support them.
While some children or adolescents may be able to get back on track with a few therapy sessions, others may require the additional support of re-entering a treatment program. Make sure to talk to your child’s mental health professionals about which treatment options make the most sense for your child.