How To Help a Child With an Eating Disorder: Your Role in Your Child’s Recovery

Mar 8, 2024

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Parenting a child with an eating disorder can be overwhelming and frightening. You want to do what’s best for your child — but you may not be sure what that looks like.

Knowing the steps to eating disorder recovery — from building a team to restoration of health to your child growing toward more of that eating independence again — can make the process much less scary as you know what lies ahead.

You play a critical role in each stage of your child’s recovery. It’s important to know each step and why it is vital to their recovery. It can be a delicate process, but each stage, each day, and each meal and snack is crucial in helping your child achieve not just food freedom but freedom from their eating disorder.

This blog — and the five individual articles linked that go more in-depth into each topic — will serve as a parent’s guide to helping a child with an eating disorder recover.

What To Do If Your Kid Has an Eating Disorder, or You Suspect They Do

Some parents may fear they are overreacting. However, it’s always important to take very seriously any changes in your child’s weight (if they stop gaining or lose weight) and/or have changes in their eating habits.

If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, the first step is to have them screened and begin building your treatment team. Even if it’s not a full-blown eating disorder and your child still has disordered eating habits, experts emphasize that early intervention is key to recovery¹.

The longer you wait, the more severe the behaviors can become, the more detrimental it can be to their health, and the more difficult recovery can be.

How To Help a Child With an Eating Disorder: Levels of Care and Building a Treatment Team

When your child begins the eating disorder recovery process, they may go through various “levels of care.” These levels of care include outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), residential treatment center (RTC), and inpatient medical hospitalization².

When your child is diagnosed, those professionals will help determine the appropriate level of care. Know that recovery is not linear, and your child may move through different levels of care during recovery.

What is most important is that your child receives the level of care that will help their health and recovery most — whatever that looks like for them in each moment.

As a parent or caregiver supporting a child with an eating disorder, you are the team captain. Each professional on your child’s team will be co-captain, guiding you through how to help your child.

You will want to build a team of educated, eating disorder-informed professionals who are all on the same page so your child can receive the proper care.

This includes a therapist (family-based and/or individual), a dietician, a doctor or other similar professional, and possibly a psychiatrist if your child has any co-occurring disorders where they may benefit from medication³.

The Family Role in the Recovery Process: You Take Control

The family role in the recovery process for a child, teen, or even adolescent should not be underestimated.

As a parent supporting a child with an eating disorder through recovery, you will have to fight for them.

Just as a child diagnosed with another illness may fight hospital visits and traditional medicine, they may push back against all efforts to overcome the eating disorder⁴. And in this case, food is the medicine. Know that this is not your child acting this way; it is the eating disorder making them act this way.

In family-based treatment (FBT), widely recognized as the most effective outpatient therapy method for child and adolescent eating disorder recovery, there are three phases of recovery⁵.

This includes:

  • Phase 1: Restoration of physical health- parent exercises full control over meals
  • Phase 2: Restoration of natural autonomy in relation to food- Gradual responsibility in making decisions about food choices and intake is given back to the adolescent
  • Phase 3: Restoration of self-identity apart from the eating disorder- parents review and identify upcoming challenges

There may be back-and-forth between these different phases as different behaviors come and go. Know that’s completely normal.

How to Help a Child With an Eating Disorder in the Different Stages of Recovery

You may wonder at what point you begin to ease up on some of the responsibility — especially if you have a teen.

You will exercise more control over their eating and other habits in the beginning. As your child goes through the different steps of eating disorder recovery, you will relinquish some of that responsibility.

How long it takes may vary, but you will learn to determine when your child is ready — like when they have restored weight and health, show more independence and autonomy, and so forth.

The Importance of Your Relationship With Your Body and Food: Set the Example

As a parent giving eating disorder support, your relationship with your own body and the way you eat and talk about food is of high importance in your child’s recovery.

Research shows that negative self-talk — even when it comes from family and peers — can impact a person’s own negative self-talk⁶.

It’s important to limit any weight and body talk and model healthy eating habits for your child⁴. Imagine how it would appear to your child if you were telling them it’s important for them to eat a certain way when, at the same time, you were dieting or talking negatively about your body or weight.

It is critical that you put these issues aside for yourself so you can hold your child’s hand through the recovery journey.

Know the Eating Disorder Recovery Process May Not Be Easy, But It Is Worth It — And You Have Support

Parenting a child with an eating disorder will almost certainly not be an easy journey. You may feel like you are fighting your child — but remember: You are not against your child, you are fighting for your child, against the eating disorder.

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible for your child — especially from a great parent who is invested in their journey, like you.

It will take time and may feel overwhelming, but having a strong support system — both with the team of professionals you build and with other family and friends — will help you as you help your child recover.

Citations:

  1. Loeb, Katharine L. 2007. “Early Identification and Treatment of Eating Disorders: Prodrome to Syndrome.” Early Intervention in Psychiatry 1, no. 1: 27-39. Accessed November 2, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-7893.2007.00007.x.
  2. Muhlheim, Lauren PsyD. 2018. When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover From Anorexia, Bulimia & Binge Eating, 29. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  3. Crosbie, Casey, and Wendy Sterling. 2018. How to Nourish Your Child through an Eating Disorder: A Simple, Plate-by-Plate Approach to Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food, 43. New York: The Experiment.
  4. Casey and Sterling, How to Nourish, 36-37.
  5. Renee D Rienecke. 2017. “Family-based treatment of eating disorders in adolescents: current insights, Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 8”:, 69-79, DOI: 10.2147/AHMT.S115775

Barbeau, Kheana, Noémie Carbonneau, and Luc Pelletier. 2022. “Family Members and Peers’ Negative and Positive Body Talk: How They Relate to Adolescent Girls’ Body Talk and Eating Disorder Attitudes.” Body Image 40: 213-224. Accessed November 2, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2021.12.010.

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