Having a child with an eating disorder is not your fault. There are so many reasons kids get eating disorders, and no parent causes an eating disorder to happen. At the same time, there are things parents can do when a child has an eating disorder. Making changes in your own behavior is a hard but vital part of your child’s recovery.
Here are my top five things parents should avoid doing when they have a child with an eating disorder:
1. Don’t get into arguments about the eating disorder
It’s really common for parents to get into extended arguments with their children about the eating disorder. An argument means going back and forth in an attempt to convince the other person to see your point of view. For example, you might argue about how much they should eat, why they should eat, what they should eat, how they should dress, how they should feel about their body, and more. These arguments are very tempting. When you hear your child say something that is factually wrong and perpetuates the eating disorder, of course you’re going to want to try and correct their belief.
Use these scripts:
- At the dinner table when behavior is getting out of control
- When you need to set boundaries – fast!
- After something happened so you can calmly review the triggers and events
The trouble is that the eating disorder loves arguments because it gives it time to present its point of view. Rather than convincing your child’s eating disorder that you’re right and it’s wrong, arguments are likely to embed disordered beliefs even deeper. Unfortunately, the eating disorder may grow stronger when it defends itself against you.
Instead of arguing with your child’s eating disorder, validate that your child has an opinion and beliefs, and hold your boundaries. For example, “I understand you don’t want to eat this right now, but this is what’s for dinner.” No matter how hard your child tries to engage in debate about whether the meal is good or not, stick to a simple, clear message. This is not an argument because you aren’t trying to convince your child to agree with you, but you are holding steady with your boundaries.
2. Don’t intentionally lose weight (diet)
Most Americans are trying to lose weight or control their weight. But diet behavior is also eating disorder behavior. And it’s going to be very hard for your child to stop using eating disorder behaviors if you’re practicing diet/eating disorder behaviors.
It’s hard to let go of diet behaviors. I totally get it. And I’m not here to criticize you, but to gently remind you that our kids pay far more attention to what we do than what we say. So if you’re telling your child that they need to eat regular meals but you’re regularly skipping meals, it’s going to be hard to positively influence recovery.
Instead of trying to control your weight, learn about a non-diet approach to health, which involves practicing health behaviors without a focus on weight outcomes. This is a major shift, but it is better for everyone’s health long term.
3. Don’t try to prevent your child from gaining “too much” weight
Many people will gain weight in eating disorder recovery, which can be really uncomfortable for parents. Keep in mind that most people with eating disorders don’t look “too thin.” Even if you don’t believe your child needs to gain weight in recovery, there’s a good chance they will gain weight, and that doing so is an essential part of healing their body and brain.
This is a really complicated topic since we live in a culture filled with weight stigma. It’s not your fault if your child’s recovery weight gain is hard for you to handle. Still, it is your responsibility to work on your biases with a professional who can help you work out your feelings without negatively impacting your child’s recovery.
Instead of worrying about your child’s weight gain during recovery, focus on their health behaviors. First and foremost, pay attention to whether they’re eating regularly and eating enough food as prescribed by their eating disorder dietitian. Next, are they getting enough sleep? This is an essential health behavior that is often missed. Additionally, how is their social media use? Parents can and should limit kids’ social media use, particularly if they have/had an eating disorder.
Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts
- Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
- Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
- Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
- What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food
4. Don’t talk about other people’s bodies
Talking about other people’s bodies is natural in our society, but it’s a habit we want to break when a child has/had an eating disorder. Eating disorders typically involve body objectification. This means viewing the body as an object rather than a living being. People who objectify bodies see them as parts rather than a whole, as objects to be manipulated rather than human beings to be respected.
Notice whether you have a tendency to observe and talk about people’s bodies as if they are objects. For example: “I wish I had her arms, they’re so toned!” or “Look at the size of those thighs!” or “You look great! Have you lost weight?” Objectifying comments separate the body from the person.
Instead of talking about bodies, talk about people. For example: “I love spending time with her!” or “He is so dedicated to Pickleball.” or “You seem so happy right now!”
5. Don’t vilify food
Our culture likes to put food into “good” and “bad” categories. Little kids are taught that carrots are good and cake is bad. But this sets up an unhealthy relationship with food. If talking about food in good and bad terms was good for our health, perhaps it would be all right, but evidence shows that it’s actually better for health if we teach kids that all foods fit in a healthy diet.
If you tend to see food as either good or bad, work with a non-diet dietitian. A few sessions can help you start to unpack your beliefs about food and build a healthier relationship with food and eating.
Instead of talking about food in good and bad terms, focus on how it looks, smells, tastes, and feels. Talk about how you feel when you’re hungry, full, and everything in between. Slow down and savor your food rather than dissect it into nutritional components. Food is not just mechanical for us, it’s also deeply social and emotional.
If you’re having trouble parenting your child through their eating disorder, you’re not alone, and help is available. You deserve support as you support your kid!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. 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 supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
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.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.