The complexities of parenting continually change as your child enters into different developmental stages, especially when your child has the added component of struggling with an eating disorder. First, it is important to recognize the eating behavior and to understand that it may be your child’s vehicle for expressing emotion, not always the physical. For example, your child might use food to block out painful feelings or avoid food to feel a sense of control. The more you understand disordered eating in general, as well as your child’s specific behaviors, the better able you will be to support your child. Once you have familiarized yourself with the different ways eating disorders can present in a child, it is important to bring it out into the open.
4 tips to help you approach your child about your concerns:
- Identify a safe person(s) for your child to talk to. This might be one-on-one with a parent, both parents, or another trusted adult.
- Use a setting in which you can talk and feel calm. If you feel upset, your child may feel guilt or a burden and be less inclined to open up. Seeing your child struggling is upsetting, so finding ways to self-sooth is important. Pleas to change, accusations, and confrontations tend to be counterproductive and your child may perceive your worries as criticisms. When any of us feel defensive, it is hard to hear what another is saying.
- Find a time you can talk without any interruptions. If there is a pressure on the time allotted for this discussion (for example, you may have a meeting that starts in ten minutes) your child may feel discouraged to open up. You will want to make sure there is enough time to talk as needed, for the child and for you.
- Practice or try writing down what you want to say beforehand. If you enter the talk knowing what you want to say, it will come across clearer and may help ease any anxieties that arise. Keep in mind that ‘pushing an issue’ when your child is not ready will create a power struggle, so be prepared to potentially leave it be and empower your child by allowing them to choose a time to talk. *Lastly, prior to the talk, accept there will always be limits to how effective you can be in influencing your child, it might be helpful to provide your child resources to talk to a specialist or group. It is not uncommon that parents must facilitate therapy as there can be quite a bit of resistance to change.
3 important things you should address when you approach your child:
- What is concerning you? It helps if you explain why you have come to suspect a struggle and note changes affecting your relationship. An example of how to phrase the suspicion, might sound like “I hear you vomiting in the bathroom” instead of “you seem to be spending a lot of time in the bathroom”. Make sure your observations are not phrased as wrongdoing. A gentle, genuine caring tone will make your message easier to hear.
- What are you feeling about your child’s struggles? Include your experience with “I” statements and speak to your own emotions, not your child’s. For example, “I have been worried about what I am seeing, and I have felt unsure whether to approach you, but I’m feeling too concerned to not talk.” Speak in a way that you would want someone to talk to you about something you are struggling with.
- What are you wanting to accomplish in this talk with your child? Ensure you set realistic goals for the talk. Letting your child know they can talk with you and that you want to support them is a great place to start. Invite your child to share any “triggers” that are occurring (for example, mealtimes can be a stress point, so ways to help support your child during meals). Long-term goals often overwhelm a person initially. Goals around how your child’s behaviors are best handled with ongoing conversations, and often in the context of therapy. A more realistic goal may be to set up another time to talk, not everything has to be sorted at once.
*If your child is in an emergency situation (death due to starvation, physical harm, potential of suicide) there is no time to waste and immediate treatment is imperative. *
National Eating Disorder Association Parent Toolkit (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/parent-toolkit)
Surviving An Eating Disorder: Strategies for family and friends (3rd ed.) by Judith Brisman, Margot Weinshel, and Michele Siegel
When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating by Lauren Muhlheim