Heading back to school after an eating disorder can be a trigger for your child. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to make things easier, reduce stress, and improve your child’s chances of success. Here are the five things parents can do to help a child with an eating disorder go back to school:
1. Set up a morning routine
We thrive on routine, and yet most of us resist structure and routine? Why? Because adopting a new routine can add more stress temporarily. But we know for sure that when we implement a morning routine and stick to it, our health improves. A morning routine is shown to reduce stress and improve sleep, eating, and physical condition.
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If you have a child with an eating disorder, a morning routine can be exactly what you need to get them back to school. Parents must be in charge of and the key implementors of morning routines. It’s not enough to list out what must be done and expect kids to follow through. Part of the benefit of a family morning routine is the engagement it creates for parents and their kids.
But don’t worry: a morning routine doesn’t need to be complicated or take a ton of time. It can be simple as this:
- Everyone wakes up at 6:30 a.m.
- Brush teeth, hair, and get dressed by 7 a.m.
- Gather for breakfast at 7 a.m.
- Pick from ready-to-go breakfast items
- Finish breakfast and leave the house by 7:30 a.m.
You can certainly adjust the timeline based on what works for your family. You may need to start earlier or later depending on your schedules. But aim to get all children and at least one parent involved in the morning routine every day.
2. Stay organized
Parents have a lot going on right now. It’s hard to juggle work and raising children. Our society does not make this easy for parents. We get it. And at the same time, it’s important for parents to stay organized and keep family life moving smoothly.
You are not expected to do this perfectly, but the more organized you remain, the better your kids’ mental health. Family organization varies for each family, but at a minimum, it should include the following elements:
- A shared family calendar so that everyone knows about upcoming events, appointments, etc.
- A weekly review of the week to come in which schedules are discussed and adjusted if needed
- Organized work spaces that are stocked with pens, paper, chargers, laptops, and everything else that is needed to work at home
- Regular meal times at which the majority of the family gathers at least once per day
- Consistent bed times
- Clear chore assignments for every member of the family
Every family will do this a little differently, but these elements combine to create a safe, structured environment in which kids’ mental health can thrive.
3. Set up a sleep hygiene system
Does your family believe in sleep hygiene? Have you taught the importance of following a sleep schedule to ensure that all of you get adequate sleep?
Most parents spend a lot of time thinking about nutrition, but very little time thinking about sleep. But sleep is probably the single most important element of physical and mental health. The diet industry spends billions per year telling people they are eating wrong. But the sleep industry has not done the same for sleep.
Getting enough sleep impacts every element of health:
Cognitive health: sleep improves concentration, productivity, and the ability to think clearly (it makes us smarter)
Mental health: adequate sleep is strongly associated with lower rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions
Physical health: sleep improves metabolism, cardiovascular health, endurance, speed, and coordination
A sleep hygiene system will help your entire family be healthier. Make sure you all apply sleep hygiene – parents need sleep as much as children do!
- Establish a regular bedtime for each person
- Turn off electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime
- Create a night-time routine – use this time to connect with your child(ren) before sleep. Take time to connect with your partner and yourself, too!
- Aim for the right amount of sleep every night based on the CDC’s sleep recommendations
- Wake up at the same time every day
Parents can make a huge improvement in their kids’ mental health during back to school and beyond with sleep hygiene alone.
4. Get support
Many parents are running on empty. They are juggling multiple responsibilities and trying to do it all with very little support. Parenting today is very stressful. We expect a lot of ourselves, and the conditions are unprecedented.
The United States is based on principles of individuation and self efficacy. But humans evolved to work in groups and support each other. This discrepancy is why so many parents feel unsupported and isolated. You may think you can handle the stress, but it negatively impacts your kids.
Parental stress is a huge stressor for kids, and it has a significant impact on their mental health. Kids who have stressed parents experience more cortisol, and that impacts their cognitive, mental, and physical health.
But don’t let this stress you out more! You just need to get more support. Build up your support structure so that you don’t pass your stress onto your kids:
- Connect with other parents so you can share stories and swap babysitting if needed
- Find a support group if your child has a challenge. For example, there are support groups for parents who have kids with autism, ADHD, eating disorders, substance abuse, cancer, diabetes, etc.
- Get therapy or coaching if you are struggling with your child’s diagnosis and care
5. Go easy on yourself (and your kids)
Give yourself a lot of leeway for making mistakes. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to keep trying. Most parents worry that if they don’t know how to do something or if their child gets upset when they try, they should give up. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should do.
Kids need us to have resilience and persistence when it comes to our relationship with them. The only way we can be resilient is if we go easy on ourselves. We will not be resilient if we’re beating ourselves up or constantly criticizing ourselves for getting it wrong or being bad parents. We have to give ourselves grace and time to try new things. Parenting takes time and effort, but it does get easier with practice. And parents can learn to do things better and more effectively. Get support from a therapist or coach if you need help with this.
And kids also need us to go easy on them. The more a child is acting up or driving us crazy, the more they need us. Parents tend to think that a difficult child needs more control and dominance. But in fact these children need us to have compassion and empathy for them. Healthy children have parents who accept them and trust them to find their own path even in difficult times.
Parenting a child with an eating disorder is challenging; you’re doing a great job!
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 their kid’s eating disorder recovery. Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.