The most common form of eating disorder treatment is putting together a treatment team. This team typically includes a doctor, therapist, registered dietitian and psychiatrist. I’ll provide information on each, but please keep in mind that I recommend finding providers who are specifically trained in and receiving supervision in eating disorders. The majority of providers do not have this experience, but I would insist on finding at least one provider who does, especially the therapist and/or RD.
Additionally, it’s best to find providers who practice from a non-diet, weight-neutral perspective whenever possible. Your child’s eating disorder treatment team is essential to their recovery, so it’s worth investing in finding the best people you can. Eating disorders tend to get worse, not better, over time, and comprehensive treatment is invaluable.
If possible, find an eating disorder specialist who is qualified to diagnose and treat eating disorders. This is a pretty rare specialty, but an unqualified therapist can unfortunately do more harm than good. For example, a therapist who is unaware of their own weight stigma can unintentionally perpetuate harmful beliefs and behaviors.
Your child’s therapist will help your child learn to process anxiety, sadness, and loneliness in adaptive ways in order to leave the eating disorder behaviors behind. This will take time and patience. Therapists have just one hour per week (on average) to work with your child, so their impact depends on whether your child is doing homework and practicing skills at home between sessions. You can help by becoming involved and getting advice from your child’s therapist about what you and the family should be doing to support recovery.
Family therapy is a way for your whole family to explore communication patterns and expand connections. Families are ecosystems. The paradox is that no single person is responsible for the family’s health or disease, and yet each person impacts the ecosystem’s health or disease.
Not every family with an eating disorder needs therapy, but most do. Think of it as an opportunity to have a tune up and get some valuable feedback and advice from a trained professional. Bring your curiosity and if the therapist gives you advice, consider it thoughtfully.
Therapy or Coaching for You
Parents who personally engage in their child’s recovery from an eating disorder can make a huge impact. We are all overwhelmed by today’s parenting standards. There is no single book and no magic bullet to creating the happy family of our dreams. It is often when we admit our own vulnerability and seek support and growth as parents that we can achieve true family connection and health.
Since you’re the person reading this article, you clearly are interested in how you can help your child heal from an eating disorder. The fact is that we can never change another person. No matter how much we love our child, we cannot force him or her to stop having an eating disorder. But we can look in the mirror and, with the help of a qualified therapist or coach, learn how to improve our parenting in light of our child’s condition.
Engage a therapist or coach who can help you be a better parent. Not because you are a bad parent, but because we can all be better. It is 100% true that no parent is responsible for a child’s eating disorder, but it is also 100% true that we can all contribute to full healing and health if we pursue self-growth through the recovery process.
Registered Dietitian (RD)
A Registered Dietitian (RD) can be an invaluable member of your eating disorder treatment team. RDs who are trained in eating disorders are qualified to diagnose and treat eating disorders. Just be sure to find one who is both qualified in eating disorders and offers a non-diet approach to health. Unfortunately, it can be very dangerous for your child to engage with an RD who is not familiar with how eating disorders work and the problems with weight stigma.
A dietitian’s knowledge and expertise includes nutrition, physiology, and promoting behavior change. They understand the complex interactions between psychology, social, and cultural aspects of eating. RDs are qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy (MNT), an evidence-based nutrition process designed to treat specific medical conditions, including eating disorders. MNT is developed and implemented by an RD, often in concert with the patient’s doctor.
Medical monitoring is necessary for your child with an eating disorder, and every doctor is capable of conducting this monitoring. Your child’s doctor should complete a physical exam measuring weight and height and checking vital signs regularly to monitor health.
There are two types of doctors when your child has an eating disorder. First is the doctor who has been specifically trained in eating disorder treatment. The second type of doctor is a primary care physician who has not been trained in eating disorder treatment. Both doctors mean well and can provide adequate care for your child, but the latter type are likely not aware of the many landmines involved in treating eating disorders, nor do they have the time in the typical 10-15 minute appointment to sensitively address your child with an eating disorder. But as long as you know this, you can work with it. Ask doctors who are not eating disorder specialists to assess your child’s vital signs of health and not provide any counseling or advice.
Depending on your child’s psychological symptoms, their treatment team may recommend seeking advice from a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and most of them focus primarily on prescribing psychiatric medication to ease symptoms. Your child’s psychiatrist must work in tandem with the doctor treating your child’s medical symptoms and will likely also consult with other team members.
Individuals with iaedp Certification designations (CEDS, CEDRD, CEDCAT, or CEDRN) are health care professionals who have met rigorous educational and skill requirements, have accumulated a minimum number of hours of qualifying work experience, have made a commitment to stay abreast of current developments in the field through continuing education, and have agreed to comply with the Association’s ethical principles.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.