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For the Parents

  • Are you afraid that a family member or friend has an eating disorder?
  • Might you or your child have an eating disorder?
  • Are you at a loss for what to do? How to help your child recover?
  • Are you aware that this is a potentially lethal problem that requires immediate attention?
  • Do you need help in finding expert care to facilitate recovery?

One point to keep in mind above all others is that your friend or family member can completely recover. They can become confident, capable, successful people. They can become well!

Common Myths about Eating Disorders

Myth #1: You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder. People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Many individuals with eating disorders are of average weight or are overweight.

Myth #2: Only teenage girls and young women are affected by eating disorders. While eating disorders are most common in young women in their teens and early twenties, they are found in men and women of all ages.

Myth #3: People with eating disorders are vain. It's not vanity that drives people with eating disorders to follow extreme diets and obsess over their bodies, but rather an attempt to deal with feelings of shame, anxiety, and powerlessness.

Myth #4: Eating disorders aren't really that dangerous. All eating disorders can lead to irreversible and even life-threatening health problems, such as heart disease, bone loss, stunted growth, infertility, and kidney damage.

Eating Disorder Self Help

Common eating disorder warning signs

photo of woman stepping on a scale
  • Preoccupation with body or weight
  • Obsession with calories, food, or nutrition
  • Constant dieting, even when thin
  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Making excuses to get out of eating
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals
  • Eating alone, at night, or in secret
  • Hoarding high-calorie food

What Can Families Do?

Positive Strategies for Parents

Parents can help their daughters by doing the following:

  • Do not treat this problem as just an academic issue, but rather recognize the emotional roots of anorexia and bulimia.
  • Be open to feedback from teachers, counselors and others who can help.
  • Educate yourself on the causes, impacts, and treatments of eating disorders through literature, books, seminars, and the Internet.
  • Talk to your daughter about what is underneath the disordered eating behavior, do not just focus on the eating patterns.
  • Recognize the need for proper assessment, dietary counseling, medical consultation and therapy treatments and options.
  • Get involved in a parent support group.
  • Talk about the issues and possible solutions to eating disorders with the whole family.
  • Don't be fooled by a daughter's attempts to minimize and ignore the real problem, be firm about the need for recovery while being sensitive to not forcing the issues.
  • Be a good role model around food, take care of yourself, don't blame yourself, and be patient.
  • Recognize that recovery takes time and do not place unrealistic demands for a quick fix of your daughter's eating disorder.

Tips for Parents of a Child with an Eating Disorder

It can be deeply distressing for a parent to know that their child is struggling with an eating disorder. As well as ensuring your child receives the professional help he or she needs, here are some other tips:

  • Examine your own attitudes about food, weight, body image and body size. Think about the way you personally are affected by body-image pressures, and share these with your child.
  • Avoid threats, scare tactics, angry outbursts, and put-downs. Bear in mind that an eating disorder is often a symptom to extreme emotional and stress, an attempt to manage emotional pain, stress, and/or self-hate. Negative communication will only make it worse.
  • Set caring and consistent limits for your child,. For example, know how you will respond when your child wants to skip meals or eat alone, or when they get angry if someone eats their "special" food.
  • Remain firm. Regardless of pleas to "not make me," and promises that the behavior will stop, you have to stay very attuned to what is happening with your child and may have to force them to go to the doctor or the hospital. Keep in mind how serious eating disorders are.
  • Do whatever you can to promote self-esteem in your child in intellectual, athletic, and social endeavors. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and encouragement. A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem are perhaps the best antidotes to disordered eating.
  • Encourage your child to find healthy ways to manage unpleasant feelings such as stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, or self-hatred.
  • Remember it's not your fault. Parents often feel they must take on responsibility for the eating disorder, which is something they truly have no control over. Once you can accept that the eating disorder is not anyone's fault, you can be freed to take action that is honest and not clouded by what you "should" or "could" have done.

Adapted from: National Eating Disorders Association, Dos and Don'ts for Family Members

  • Remove yourself from the problem and allow the sufferer to make choices about her behavior unencumbered by power struggles and control battles.
  • Accept the other person's right to an independent life. Don't take charge.
  • Don't purchase (or avoid purchasing) food solely to accommodate the eating-disordered person.
  • Each household member decides individually what he or she will or will not eat. No one should be forced to eat anything or be restricted in what can be eaten.
  • Don't make mealtimes a battleground.
  • Be willing to negotiate household chores involving food.
  • The eating-disordered person is responsible for her behavior whenever it affects others.
  • Do not monitor someone else's behavior for them (even if you are invited to). Do no be the "food police."
  • Do not use money to control another person's eating behavior.
  • Do not anticipate someone else's needs. Ask!
  • Don't make eating out a battle of wills.
  • Do not play therapist.
  • Do not offer advice or opinions.
  • Do not comment about someone's weight and looks.

Resources

FREE Eating Disorder Support Group!

FREE weekly eating disorder support group for adults struggling with food issues, staffed by therapists from Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers. Thursdays from 5:30-6:45 pm at 3116 N Swan in Tucson. For more information, call 888-520-1700.

"Mirasol is light years ahead of any other program in the country."