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Eating Disorders: Suggestions for Helping Your Child


If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, or he or she has been diagnosed with one, naturally you will want to do all you can to help your son or daughter recover.

Keep in mind, however, that the only way to effectively help others is to take good care of yourself. Parents cannot help a child in the long run by neglecting their own needs.

Make a promise to yourself that you will eat well, exercise, find time for relaxation and enjoyable activities, and seek out the support that you will need. Support may be found in trusted friends, clergy, a counselor, support groups and online resources.

Your child will need encouragement, compassion and patience, which are difficult to provide if you are feeling unwell yourself. The eating disorder is not your fault, so there is no need to be hard on yourself.

Eating Disorder Signs and Behaviors

If your child demonstrates some of these eating disorder symptoms, it is important that he or she visit a doctor immediately.

  • - Eating very small food portions, eating in secret, hiding or hoarding food, disappearing right after eating (frequently to a bathroom)
  • - Distorted body image, fear of getting/being fat, wearing over-sized or bulky clothing
  • - Big fluctuations in weight (up or down), lack of concern about a large weight loss
  • - Irritability, depressed mood, isolation, problems sleeping
  • - Brittle or thinning hair, fine hair growing on the body
  • - Dry skin, yellow skin, puffy face, cold hands or feet, swollen feet, stomach cramps, weak muscles, discolored teeth and cavities
  • - Irregular or no menstruation

Although you cannot force your child to eat, be firm about seeing the doctor. An eating disorder can be a cry for help. Still, your child may resist seeing a physician. You can point out that the visit is not to force behavior changes but a way for everyone to understand the situation and what the options are.

Five Suggestions for Talking to Your Child

  1. Emphasize concern for your child’s well-being. You might share specific behaviors you have observed and why they cause you to worry about his health. For instance, “I've noticed that you’re eating very little at dinner and you look tired and pale. I care about you and want you to be well.” Your child will know he is cared about and not alone, a great support to him even if he cannot express it.
  2. It is better to avoid commenting on your child’s appearance. She is obsessed with her looks, and even what you consider positive comments about appearance will only strengthen her rumination about it.
  3. Help him explore his thoughts and feelings about food, appearance or weight. You can do this by first listening and then asking open-ended questions. An open-ended question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The answer requires thought and will help him explore his inner world. For example, “What goes through your mind when you sit down to eat dinner?”
  4. As you can imagine, listening and asking open-ended questions is only helpful when you maintain a non-judgmental, accepting attitude. It is human nature for people of all ages to clam-up or become angry when hearing any hint of blame, guilt or shame. Any criticism your child hears will spark a defensive response and cause frustration for both of you.
  5. Even if you listen and communicate like a pro, she may have difficulty opening up to you. Although this may hurt your feelings or provoke anger, the most helpful thing to do is make an appointment with someone she may confide in. This could be a clergy person, professional or school counselor, trusted teacher, friend or the family’s physician.

Five Tips for Parents and Families

  1. If your child’s eating disorder is continually disrupting family life, consider family counseling.
  2. Be aware that there are open-access websites that encourage eating disorders and provide suggestions for maintaining the unhealthy behaviors. These sites, or videos, are often called pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia).
  3. Monitor the way you talk about food, weight and dieting. For instance, if you frequently talk about diets and dieting, your own appearance, others' appearances and/or foods that are “good” or “bad,” start talking about something else.
  4. One healthy topic of family conversation could be the way advertising, the fashion industry, videos, TV and movies often project harmful messages about weight, body size, food, eating and dieting.
  5. Limit the time your family spends discussing the eating disorder. Problems such as this can consume a family’s attention, and that is not healthy for any family member.