Posted on 9 Comments

What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an Eating Disorder Treatment Center

parents should carefully consider the implications of sending a child away to a treatment center for eating disorder treatment

by John Levitt, PhD

I often get calls from parents asking me about how to get their child into a (usually inpatient or residential) eating disorder treatment program, but I almost never get calls from parents who want to know how they can avoid sending their child to a treatment center.

I think many parents assume that a treatment center is the only option for their child, but that’s often just not the case. There are definitely times when an inpatient or residential treatment center is the best option for their child’s eating disorder recovery, but it’s important to know that the potential costs for sending one’s child to a treatment center (financially, personally, and socially) are possibly very high — and relapse rates can also be very high as well!

Treatment centers are run by good people who are generally doing good work. That said, treatment centers are businesses, and you as parents are the consumers. Don’t be afraid to be a smart consumer. Ask a lot of questions. Ensure you understand what you are getting into. That is, make sure you know what you will be paying for and what outcome(s) you can expect. Parents should become the experts on what they are “buying” before taking the leap to send their child anywhere!

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

Give these printable worksheets to grow more confident, calm and resilient and feel better, fast!

  • Self-Esteem
  • Self-Regulation
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming strategies

First, it’s important to know what treatment centers can – and can’t – do. Treatment centers are places where your child can stabilize his or her eating disorder symptoms. Their weight will hopefully improve and likely stabilize and their eating disorder symptoms will likely be reduced or even eliminated completely while they are staying at the treatment center.   Associated symptoms of depression and anxiety and so forth are also likely to improve.

That said, when they get home, they are faced with the same life stressors and conditions that may have at least bred the eating disorder, or minimally, were associated with the eating disorder prior to going to going to treatment!   Once home, this is where the true treatment begins. Your child needs to learn to live with a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy that is enduring and resilient across people, places, and situations — and they often won’t find that in a treatment center. You just can’t practice all of the requirements of life in a controlled setting. Full treatment does not happen in a program, it happens in life.

I recommend that parents ask treatment centers a variety of questions such as: how long does it usually take to stabilize a child’s eating disorder(s) (including issues related to mood etc.), how will the treatment center ensure that you, the parent(s), are an essential part of the treatment, and how will the treatment center prepare your child, and the parents, for the child’s return home — ensuring the maintenance of their treatment gains.   In addition, even at admission or pre-admission, parents should ask about what will be needed upon the child’s return home; after completing that treatment. That is, what will your child need following their stay at the center? You should not receive vague answers to any of these questions because they are critical to efforts to achieve full recovery.

I understand how frustrating it can be to have a child who has an eating disorder at home. I understand the desire to send the child “away” to get better because you just don’t know what else to do. But I would be very judicious about sending one’s child away. As long as your child is going to return home to the parent, that parent is going to need to get his/her own tools and support to continue the healing process.


Parents need to be educated, supported and trained to support their children in healing from an eating disorder. Some treatment centers build that into their programs. Ask them about it.  Make sure that they will involve you and make up your mind to be involved!

Also, don’t be afraid to ask about the costs involved. Many eating disorder treatment (e.g., residential) centers are running 60 days. That’s a long time for your child to be away from home and away from school. It’s can also be about $60,000 plus. That doesn’t take into account post-center treatment. That can be equivalent to your child’s college tuition.

I don’t want to discourage parents from using inpatient or residential treatment centers. I just want parents to understand what is involved in some types of treatments, carefully review the alternatives, if any, and enter treatment with realistic expectations and get their questions answered! It’s important for parents to be really clear about what is realistic to expect.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 9.27.21 PM

John L Levitt, PhD, CEDS, FAED, FIAEDP, is the co-editor of the book, Self-Harm Behavior and Eating Disorders: Dynamics, Assessment, and Treatment, and was on the Editorial Board of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention Email: Phone: (847) 370-1995

See Our Eating Disorder Treatment Guide For Parents

9 thoughts on “What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an Eating Disorder Treatment Center

  1. As a former patient, I was an adult. It becomes very clear the these treatment very clear that treatment centers are a business. They are basically selling a product. The center I was at was helpful. But it was not the reason I recovered.

  2. Tina, thank you so much for your comment. I agree with you completely – treatment centers can be helpful, and the people who work there are great, but recovering from an eating disorder takes work outside of even the best center.

  3. I think that the reason you gets calls asking about inpatient centers rather than home based treatment is that by the times these parents are calling they have already tried to manage at home. If I hadn’t sent my daughter to a treatment center I wouldn’t have her any longer……I didn’t jump into sending her as a first option…we had struggled at home for 2 years. She had counseling and medical intervention…but I am one person and can’t give the 100% supervision they can give at the treatment centers and until her body and brain were sufficiently nourished she wasn’t able to help herself. I agree not all treatment centers are created alike but I don’t want parents thinking it is a weak option or a cop out…..inpatient treatment saved my daughter’s life. Yes, I was fully aware when she came home that I was gonna be back in the fight….but at least I was back in the fight with a medically stable person and it gave us a fighting chance.

  4. Thank you so much for this comment. I completely agree that there are times when treatment centers are the only option. You absolutely handled your daughter’s condition like a champ!

  5. […] Your child’s eating disorder treatment will vary, but keep it as close to home as possible. Sending your child away to attend inpatient treatment should be considered only in extreme cases. READ: What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an Eating Disorder Treatment Center… […]

  6. […] READ MORE: What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an Eating Disorder Treatment Center… […]

  7. 14yo daughter REFUSES to eat anymore than 500-900 calories a day (sometimes none at all).

    Yes; DR says you are underweight; counselor tries….

    Wife sits with her at breakfast; 100 calories max.

    I do lunch with her at school; 450 calories max.

    Dinner depends upon if she wants computer time (600-800 calories) or forget it (0 calories).

    We are at whits end.

    1. So sorry to hear this! It’s very difficult to navigate intensely restrictive eating disorders. Hopefully you have a good therapist helping your child. Also, consider this book by Lauren Mulheim:

  8. […] who has been treating eating disorders for more than 40 years, wrote a helpful article titled “What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an eating disorder treatment center,” which you may find […]

Leave a Reply