7 Steps for When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

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If your child, adolescent, or young adult is displaying signs of an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosabulimia nervosabinge eating disorder, or orthorexia, what should you do? In the past, parents were often taught that parental intervention with an eating disorder would make the problem worse. We now know this not to be the case: you are your child’s best ally in treatment. It is important to act rather than stand by and watch. An eating disorder can be a medical crisis. In extreme cases, it can be fatal. However, with early intervention, the chance of a full recovery is very good.

1. Trust Your Parental Instincts

It is common for individuals with eating disorders to not even be aware they have a problem. This is called anosognosia. Your child is likely to deny there is a problem when asked directly. Do not let this throw you off. Watch and observe them closely. Review potential warning signs in children and signs in older individuals.

2. Do Not Blame Yourself

A common parental response to learning their child has any problem or illness is to blame oneself. Don’t! Parents do not cause eating disorders. Any time you spend trying to understand what may have caused the eating disorder is the time you have wasted. Instead, focus your energy on helping your child get well by following the rest of the steps below.

3. Get Informed

Being an informed mental health advocate will help you to help your child recover. Read and learn about eating disorders. You can find good information here and at the following websites:

4. Visit Your Pediatrician

Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician, who can help detect the early onset of an eating disorder and prevent it from progressing. Make a list of the reasons you are concerned. Make another list of questions for your doctor. You might want to read the medical guide from the Academy for Eating Disorders which lists the vitals and laboratory tests that should be performed as you consult with your doctor. Take notes during the appointment. Ask for a copy of your child’s growth charts and discuss them with their healthcare provider.

If your child has been losing weight, be wary if your pediatrician schedules a follow-up appointment several weeks away and suggests no interim course of action other than to observe if your child willingly puts on weight. This “wait and see” approach can be dangerous and you may need to be assertive about asking for a sooner follow-up and/or referrals.

5. Research Options for Treatment

Ask your pediatrician for referrals to eating disorder specialists in your area. Additionally, research other treatment providers. The internet can provide a great deal of information, but keep in mind that some individual providers may not maintain websites so you may have to make phone calls and get recommendations.

Familiarize yourself with the different types of treatment, including family-based treatment, leading outpatient treatment for children and adolescents with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Learn about the various levels of care including outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), residential treatment (RTC), and medical hospitalization. Do not be swayed solely by beautiful marketing. Do your research. If you have insurance, call your insurance carrier and make sure you are familiar with your insurance benefits.

Reputable sites to find treatment providers include:

6. Ask Questions

Call and interview prospective treatment providers before you settle on one. Some questions you may want to ask potential treatment providers are available through the NEDA and F.E.A.S.T.

7. Seek Support for Yourself

Caring for a child with an eating disorder can be an overwhelming and isolating experience. Many parents benefit from the support and wisdom of other parents who have been there. Good support resources for parents include NEDA’s Parent, Family & Friends Network (PFN) and the F.E.A.S.T.'s Around the Dinner Table Forum.

There are also some Facebook groups including International Eating Disorder Family Support. The website anorexiafamily.com from parent and author Eva Musby provides family-based treatment resources for parents and clinicians. 

When it comes to eating disorders, it is better to overreact than to underreact. The steps above are no-regret moves—you will not create a problem if there is not already one there. And fortunately, early intervention greatly improves prognosis.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rienecke RD. Family-based treatment of eating disorders in adolescents: current insights. Adolesc Health Med Ther. 2017;8:69-79. doi:10.2147/AHMT.S115775

  2. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Eating Disorder Statistics.

  3. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Warning Signs and Symptoms. 2018.

  4. Stillar A, Strahan E, Nash P, Files N, et al. The influence of carer fear and self-blame when supporting a loved one with an eating disorderEating Disorders. 2016;24:2:173-185. doi:10.1080/10640266.2015.1133210

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescents. Identifying and Treating Eating Disorder. May 15, 2018.

  6. Academy for Eating Disorders. Medical Care Standards Guide - The Purple Book. 2019.

  7. Katzman DK, Peebles R, Sawyer SM, Lock J, Grange DL. The Role of the Pediatrician in Family-Based Treatment for Adolescent Eating Disorders: Opportunities and Challenges. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2013;53(4):433-440. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.07.011

  8. Bisbing Z. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Levels of Care in Eating Disorder Treatment.

  9. Rodgers RF, Paxton SJ. The impact of indicated prevention and early intervention on co-morbid eating disorder and depressive symptoms: a systematic review. J Eat Disord. 2014;2(1):30. doi:10.1186/s40337-014-0030-2

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.