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June 26, 2024

How to Talk to Your Adult Child About Their Eating Disorder

How to Talk to Your Adult Child About Their Eating Disorder

Perhaps you’ve noticed some differences in your adult child’s behavior. These changes are mostly related to their eating and exercise habits, but extend to their general demeanor. 

Maybe they push their food around on their plate without eating much of it. 

Maybe they can’t seem to stop talking about their new diet and exercise regimen.  

Maybe they deliberately avoid family gatherings that involve food. 

Approaching your child about these behaviors may feel daunting. You might worry about upsetting them or creating distance in your relationship. While you understand that they are now in charge of their own health decisions, you are deeply concerned about their well-being. The situation is undeniably distressing. Though you cannot force your adult child into seeking help, your support, empathy, and guidance can empower them to take that crucial next step. 

Read on to learn some helpful tips on initiating a conversation about eating disorder treatment with your adult child. 

How to Talk to Your Child About Starting Eating Disorder Treatment

1. Offer empathy and validation

It’s essential to lead a conversation about eating disorder treatment with empathy and validation. Your child may have countless justifications for why they don’t think they need treatment. You believe that nothing is more important than their mental and physical well-being, so it may be frustrating to hear their protests. Remember, eating disorders are not logical; they are complex illnesses that involve distorted perceptions. While it may be challenging, patience and sensitivity are crucial as you navigate your child’s resistance. Strive to maintain a non-judgmental stance, knowing that the eating disorder is fighting hard to stick around.

Here are some examples of how to address common eating disorder thoughts you might hear:

Your child: “I’m not sick enough.” 
You: “‘Sick enough’ is a myth; if you are struggling, you deserve care.”

Your child: “I can fix this on my own.”
You: “Eating disorders are complex illnesses that require specialty treatment. You do not have to fight this on your own and you’re not meant to.”

Your child: “I don’t want to disrupt my life/I can’t miss work/school.”
You: “Although treatment may require temporary adjustments in your school or work routine, there is so much to gain in recovery. Freedom from your illness can help you thrive in all areas of your life.” 

2. Keep communication open

Open communication is crucial for fostering safe and meaningful dialogue. By staying in touch, you create a foundation where your child can turn to you for guidance when they are struggling. Open communication also enables you to detect any subtle changes in your child, allowing for timely eating disorder support and intervention. Distance doesn’t have to hinder your connection; leverage phone calls, texts, and video chats as needed to remain in touch. 

3. Offer education about eating disorders

Providing eating disorder education is not about instilling fear in your child to seek treatment, but rather about helping them grasp the consequences of an eating disorder. Often, people are not aware of the serious mental and physical complications that accompany anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). Offering your child full insight into the potential effects of these behaviors can truly open their eyes to the severity of the situation.

Even if your child understands the gravity of their condition, they may still be inclined to postpone seeking help (e.g., thinking they will seek treatment after the semester ends or once they complete an important work project). Explain that early eating disorder intervention often leads to more successful treatment outcomes, reduced risk of long-term damage, and an improved quality of life. Timely treatment allows your child to challenge the eating disorder before it gains additional strength, preventing serious complications from developing or worsening. 

4. Highlight the benefits of treatment and recovery

In addition to informing your child about the consequences of not seeking treatment, you might also highlight the benefits of recovery. Help your child see that recovery will allow them to be themselves again. Right now, even if they don’t fully recognize it, their eating disorder is impacting their life and taking time away from their relationships and passions. Recovery allows more space for what’s truly important to them, whether that be school, work, hobbies, health, or something else. 

To paint a vivid picture for your child, describe how their life could blossom without the grip of their eating disorder. Share your observations of the toll the disorder has taken on them and how recovery offers an opportunity to reclaim the full, vibrant life they deserve.

5. Offer support in seeking help

If your adult child agrees to attend treatment after this difficult conversation, they may benefit from your support in seeking help. The process of reaching out for care can be intimidating and overwhelming. Assure your child that you will be there with them every step of the way. Perhaps you can research treatment programs with them or offer a comforting presence as they courageously make the first phone call.

At The Emily Program, we understand that family involvement in treatment is essential to your child’s successful recovery. Within our comprehensive care model, we integrate family-based treatment (FBT) principles, which help families better understand eating disorders and process their own emotions during their child’s illness. You will have the opportunity to be there for your child during treatment and after. Your support will likely make all the difference. 

Understanding the Role of Parents: Supporting a Child with an Eating Disorder

You may feel the weight of guilt on your shoulders, believing you are to blame for your child’s eating disorder. But parents are not the cause of these complex mental health challenges. Rather, your love, support, and unwavering understanding can make a monumental impact on your child’s healing journey. Remember to prioritize your own well-being and self-care even as you attend to your child’s needs. By showing yourself grace and self-compassion, you create a sustainable foundation from which to support your child.

At The Emily Program, we understand that addressing and healing from an eating disorder requires a comprehensive approach that includes not just the individual struggling with the disorder but also their loved ones. Our compassionate, expert teams guide families through the challenging emotions and obstacles that often accompany this process. Find more resources for families on our Resources for Families and Parent FAQs web pages. 

Trust your intuition if you believe your child may be struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex, severe illnesses that require a multidisciplinary team of experts to treat. The Emily Program is here to help. Encourage your child to give us a call at 888-364-5977 or, if they’d like us to contact them, they can fill out our online form

Get help. Find hope.