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 nervosa, or binge eating disorder, 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 him or her 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 consumer 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. Keep in mind that most pediatricians have little to no training in eating disorders. Thus, you might want to bring along useful information, including the medical guide from the Academy for Eating Disorders listing the vitals and laboratory tests that should be performed. Make a list of the reasons you are concerned. Make another list of questions for your doctor. Take notes during the appointment. Ask for a copy of your child’s growth charts and discuss them with the doctor.

In the case of a child that has been losing weight, be especially 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 Around the Dinner Table Forum of F.E.A.S.T.

There are also some Facebook groups including International Eating Disorder Family support. Parent Eva Musby also maintains an excellent website with resources for parents. 

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.

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Article Sources

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  • Katzman, D. K., Peebles, R., Sawyer, S. M., Lock, J., & Grange, D. L. (2013). The Role of the Pediatrician in Family-Based Treatment for Adolescent Eating Disorders: Opportunities and Challenges.Journal of Adolescent Health53(4), 433–440. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.07.011
  • Lock, J., & Grange, D. L. (2005). Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder, First Edition (1 edition). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.