How to Parent a Child with an Eating Disorder
Supporting Your Child at Home
Any interventions as a parent should be centered around health, and not your child’s weight. As a parent, it is important to create safe spaces for your child to move their bodies, without the focus being on weight loss or weight concerns. For example, embracing the joy of healthy movement in early childhood through sports, walking, biking, gardening, or other hobbies or activities is a helpful way of doing this.
It is recommended you avoid any eating or exercising mandates built into “weight loss” for your child, as these practices only expose them to body image issues at a young age.
Putting energy into outdoor activities, genuine “play” (without an agenda) and boundaries around screen time, all can have a positive impact on mental and physical happiness and health as well.
Avoid using outdated terms like obesity and “normal weight” when speaking with your child about body shape and size. There is no “normal weight” as this is based in outdated body mass index (BMI) practices that reduce health to a number on a scale, without taking into account broader psychological, social, and biological factors. Instead, parents and physicians could use an individual growth chart that tracks growth over time, at the individual level, instead of against a “normal weight.” This measurement should be done in a private setting, free from any comments.
As a parent, it’s also important to be a positive role model for your child. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect or that you can’t struggle with body image issues yourself, but it does mean that you should be mindful of what you say and how you behave when your child is around. This includes how you talk about yourself and others, too. Make it a point to avoid all shaming, stigmatizing, or negative comments related to the physical appearance of others, whether they are people in your family, friends, strangers, celebrities, or professional athletes.
You may also want to introduce mindful eating into your home. This practice is exactly as it sounds—during mealtimes, you and your family practice being present and acknowledging each of your senses when consuming a meal. Put away your phones, turn off the TV, and be present with each other. Another common facet of mindful eating is that of expressing gratitude for where your food came from and those who made that possible. Mindful eating can help to reframe mealtimes for your child, who may feel distress or avoidance surrounding them. Plus, this practice will likely benefit the whole family and your relationships.
Supporting Your Child at School
You can be an advocate for your child at school where many of the disordered eating behaviors can develop due to pressure from peers or even teachers. Educating parents, peers, and teachers about how they talk about weight and body image will also go a long way in supporting your child while they are in their school environment. Arranging to have an educator talk about diversity training and size bias is a good way to get everyone involved.
Address any bullying or teasing directly with the school to prevent it from being an ongoing issue.
Other school stressors that may trigger disordered eating symptoms in your child include the pressures related to academic performance. Make sure your child knows that their worth is not tied to test scores or report cards.
If your child participates in athletics, make sure to educate them on the risks of disordered eating among athletes, particularly those that focus on weight and body size, such as wrestling, dancing, cheerleading, and track and field. Again, emphasize your child’s worth outside of athletic performance, particularly if they struggle with perfectionism (which many people with an eating disorder do). When complimenting them, show pride for how much fun they seem like they’re having or for what a great teammate they are.
Getting Your Child Help for an Eating Disorder
If you suspect that your child may have an eating disorder, it's important to remember that the disorder is not their fault, and they did not choose to have it. In the same breath, you need to understand that you did not cause their eating disorder, and that eating disorders are complex mental health conditions caused by a myriad of interacting biopsychosocial factors. Avoid blaming or shaming yourself.
In addition, please keep in mind that it takes a great deal of patience to help a child with an eating disorder. Speaking with a healthcare provider, who specializes in eating disorders, about your concerns is a good starting point. The expert will generally begin with an assessment of eating behaviors, co-occurring mental health conditions, and exercise patterns to determine where your child needs help. It is also important to evaluate the environment a child is experiencing as far as school pressures, outside influences, and social media influences to have a great understanding of the overall needs of your child. Together you can outline a care plan with your care team that supports your child and their specific needs.
Within Health offers virtual care programs for children thirteen and older with eating disorders. Call our clinical care team today to learn more about how Within Health can assist your child in eating disorder treatment, and recovery.