If your child has an eating disorder, recovery means more than simply gaining weight and/or stopping eating disorder behaviors; it means becoming mentally healthy. Eating disorders are frequently misunderstood, and people don’t always realize that mental health, not just eating disorder recovery, is the goal.
That’s why I’ve put together a mental health checklist to help you set expectations and goals as your child recovers from their eating disorder. This mental health checklist is especially important if your child is returning to college or independent living after undergoing recovery in your home and/or a treatment facility.
Eating disorders are often layered on top of poor mental health and other mental disorders, so if parents don’t pay attention to mental health overall, they risk having a boomerang effect of having a child leave and return to eating disorder treatment. While you can’t control their recovery, you can do your best to set your child up for success. Nobody wants your child to feel they are ready to return to independent living or go to college only to discover that they are not yet equipped to care for themselves, so the more you can help them build the skills they need to be mentally healthy, the better. A mental health checklist to be used during and after eating disorder recovery can help.
How to measure mental health
Mental health sometimes feels arbitrary. But in fact, we can measure mental health based on the behaviors that lead to and indicate mental health. It’s just like eating disorders. Except for medically-underweight anorexia, eating disorders don’t often have measurable physical symptoms. Instead, they are diagnosed based on the behaviors observed.
For example, eating disorders are measured by how often a person eats, how much they eat, and how they feel about eating. Similarly, mental health can be measured by how well a person takes care of themselves and how they feel about themselves.
In addition to your child’s recovery process, they should be learning to take care of their physical health, which includes at a minimum:
- Getting adequate food and water
- Moving their body appropriately
- Getting enough sleep
- Basic hygiene
Beyond basic physical healthcare, your child should also take care of their emotional health, which includes at a minimum:
- Connecting with others
- Managing social media use
- Practicing mindfulness
- Getting outdoors
- Asking for help
- Taking breaks
- Having self-compassion
Physical self-care after an eating disorder
Even if your child is cleared of an active eating disorder diagnosis, they are still at risk of mental illness. They will need to care for their bodies and minds intentionally for life. This is important for every person, but particularly for someone who has/had an eating disorder. Here are the basic physical care steps that your child should take to improve mental health.
Getting adequate food and water
All bodies need enough food and water to function. And a lack of food and water has a significant impact on both mental and physical health. When someone has/had an eating disorder, it’s an indication that they may need to be more vigilant than others about caring for this most basic element of self-care. As your child transitions to living independently from you, they should demonstrate an ability to feed themselves adequate quantities of food every 3-4 hours and drink at least 6-8 glasses of water daily.
Moving their body appropriately
Our bodies are made to move. Regular movement is essential to both physical and mental health. The tricky part is that many people who have eating disorders incorporate excessive exercise and/or are at risk of serious health complications if they exercise. However, as your child recovers from their eating disorder, they should work in regular movement to maintain health. This can be functional like having a walking commute to work or school, going for a short walk each day, doing a brief home exercise routine, or joining a gym or attending fitness classes. Your child should demonstrate an ability to move their body regularly, not too much and not too little.
Getting enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is a cornerstone of mental health. Your child needs 8-9 hours of sleep per night. People with eating disorders and other behavioral and mental health problems often experience sleep loss. Your child may have insomnia or struggle to settle down and get to sleep. While it’s easy to dismiss sleep as unimportant, it is as important as food, water, and movement to the human body and mental health. Sleep loss is no joke for anyone, but it is particularly risky for someone who has been diagnosed with a mental disorder like an eating disorder. Losing sleep is a major risk for someone with a history of mental disorders. Therefore, your child should demonstrate an ability to get adequate sleep each night and wake up at an appropriate hour in the morning.
While basic hygiene may seem like a given, it can be a major struggle for someone with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, or other mental disorder. On the one hand, if your child has OCD, they may lead towards overdoing hygiene. Some people will wash and clean themselves excessively. On the other hand, someone who is depressed or has ADHD may feel unable to clean themselves adequately. Either way, taking care of basic hygiene is essential to mental health. Like exercise, you’ll need to measure whether your child’s challenge is doing too much or too little and work from there. Set some basic expectations, like flossing and brushing teeth twice daily. Bathing can vary per person, but discuss the maximum number of days between showers and/or the maximum number of showers per day. Your child should demonstrate an ability to take care of their basic hygiene.
Emotional self-care after an eating disorder
An eating disorder is a mental illness. This means that while physical symptoms and/or behaviors are used to diagnose an eating disorder, it is emotional and mental in nature. This means that your child needs to care for their emotional health. This is important for everyone, but particularly for someone who has/had an eating disorder. Here are the basic emotional self-care steps that your child should take to maintain their mental health.
Connecting with others
Human connection is as important as food, water, sleep, and movement. It is a sign of mental health to reach out to other people. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or intense. Still, you should feel confident that your child has some human connection daily. It might be a phone call to a loved one, but it could also be as simple as going in person to get groceries or food and speaking to someone while getting it instead of ordering contactless delivery.
Managing social media use
Social media can be a major impediment to mental health for numerous reasons. It is particularly dangerous for people who have/had eating disorders due to the algorithmic preference for very thin people who promote “healthy lifestyles” that include eating disorder behaviors and beliefs. While zero social media use might be ideal for mental health, it’s not realistic or necessary for most people. Your child should demonstrate that they can set limits on their usage.
One of the symptoms of an eating disorder is a disconnection between the mind and the body. It’s as if the brain-body connection is severed. To recover and maintain mental health, your child needs to practice a mindful connection between the brain and body. Your child should have a daily mindfulness practice that actively connects the brain and body.
Studies have shown that being in nature, even for a few minutes daily, has numerous physical benefits, including less pain and lower diastolic blood pressure. It improves mood and reduces the risk of mental illness. Support your child in getting outdoors for at least a few minutes daily. They can combine this with either exercise or mindfulness, or both. They should take a few moments to feel the air in their lungs and look at the sky, a tree, or anything natural and not human-made.
Asking for help
There is a tendency when someone has a mental disorder like an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, etc., to self-isolate. They reach out less to people who care about them and say less about how they are feeling. You want to support your child in reaching out for help when they feel sad, scared, or angry. Nobody can take their feelings away, but sharing our feelings with other people is soothing and improves mental health.
The brain-body disconnection common in eating disorders often translates to ignoring signs of mental or physical fatigue. A mentally healthy person recognizes when they need a break and takes breaks to improve their health and performance. Help your child learn to take breaks when they are overwhelmed or having physical or mental symptoms of fatigue.
A mentally healthy person has compassion for themselves. They don’t beat themselves up when they make mistakes and don’t speak cruelly or dismissively to themselves. They know how to soothe themselves when things go wrong and treat themselves as they would a good friend. Help your child learn to speak to themself with self-compassion and love.
Giving your child a mental health checklist for eating disorder recovery
Discussing mental health with your child while they are still recovering from an eating disorder and preparing to leave your daily care will help them build mental health. You can create your own checklist or use the one I created. The checklist I created includes both daily actions and warning signs to keep in mind. You can provide this to your child and talk with them regularly about both elements: are they doing daily self-care, and are there any warning signs to address? This can help you communicate your concern for their mental health, even if your child isn’t living with you.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about 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.