When your child is struggling with an eating disorder, it affects everyone in the family. Eating disorder symptoms can be confusing and elicit feelings of frustration, fear, and sadness. It’s difficult to know how to help, especially when you aren’t quite sure what’s going on.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses rooted in biology, psychology, culture, and more. These disorders often present when individuals are in their teens, so it’s essential to keep an eye out for eating disorder symptoms in children and young adults. Warnings signs to watch for include:
Due to the differing nature of how eating disorders present, they are divided into the following five categories:
Anorexia Nervosa. Extreme food restriction that causes significant weight loss. Anorexia often presents with body dysmorphia and anxiety around food.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). A lack of interest in or an avoidance of certain foods that result in a failure to meet nutritional needs. ARFID, unlike anorexia, does not include a drive for thinness.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Repeated episodes of excessive and uncontrollable food consumption without the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia.
Bulimia Nervosa. Food intake followed by purging. Like anorexia, those with bulimia often fear weight gain.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). Disordered eating that causes severe misery or disturbance but does not meet the criteria for AN, ARFID, BED, or BN.
If you are concerned that your teenage child is suffering from an eating disorder, the best thing you can do is start a conversation. First, ask your child if you can speak to them in a private setting. Then, explain your concerns to your child in a specific, non-judgmental way. “I” statements are a great place to start. Some examples of concrete observations you can share are:
After you share these concerns, have a conversation with your child and listen to what they think. It’s possible they may refuse to engage in the conversation and may deny struggling with food. That is normal. If your child refuses to talk to you, make sure you let them know that you are here to support them and want them to get help. If you have a gut feeling that your child is struggling with food, they likely are. Be firm and continue to have an open dialogue around food.
While talking to your child is essential, you should trust your gut and bring your child in for an eating disorder assessment if their behavior around food is concerning. To start this process, you and your child can call an eating disorder specialty center like The Emily Program. From there, your child (with your help) can complete an eating disorder assessment. After, you will be connected with a professional to talk about treatment options if your child needs.
Parental support in eating disorder recovery is essential. While your child’s eating disorder may have negatively impacted your relationship, recovery can be a way to reconnect and rebuild the relationship. It’s important to reassure your child that you are there for them when they need and that you fully support their recovery.
If your child needs treatment, know that treatment is the best option for them. It’s important to prioritize treatment above other things happening in your child’s life. Eating disorders require proper care and the sooner that care is received, the sooner your child can experience freedom and recovery. Depending on the level of care your child needs, you may be involved in different ways. Often, parents attend family therapy sessions, they can drive their children to and from treatment, and aid in supporting meal and treatment plans.
It’s important to remember that your child’s treatment team is working to support your child. Their only aim is to help your child get better. It’s vital for parents to work with their child’s treatment team and to support their child’s care plan. If a parent has a concern with a child’s treatment plan, it is recommended to speak with the treatment team directly, instead of first speaking with the child. From there, the child’s parent and treatment team can work together to build a plan that all parties are on board with.
Another way to be appropriately involved in your child’s treatment is to listen to them. If they ask you to be more involved, you can ask for specific ways to support them. If they tell you that they are feeling overwhelmed and need a night free of questions, that’s okay! Make sure your child knows that you are supporting them and that you trust their choices in recovery.
If you are concerned that your child is struggling with recovery or relapsing, talk to them and express your concerns. You can ask if they need more support, more frequent therapy, or anything else. Help them to find a balance. You can also communicate these worries to your child’s treatment team and their team can work to assist your child in strengthening their recovery.
Above all, make sure your child knows you are there for them.
Eating disorders are hard on the whole family. By helping your child seek care promptly, they may experience a shorter recovery process. Eating disorder recovery is possible. Call The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 for more information.
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