How to Talk to Your Child About Eating Disorders

Rear view of mother and daughter sitting on bed

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Every parent wants nothing more than for their child to be healthy and happy. That is why it can be scary if you start to see signs of disordered eating.

Maybe your son is obsessed with his weight and runs to the bathroom immediately after dinner. Or your daughter is afraid of gaining weight and refuses to eat certain foods. Regardless of what you are seeing at home, having a conversation is an important first step.

But this is not a conversation that you should jump into without some thought and planning. An eating disorder is a serious illness and the way that we talk about it matters. Here is what you need to know about getting the conversation started, including what you should say and what you should avoid.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

When to Talk About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a growing issue in the U.S., where 30 million people have an eating disorder. Meanwhile, 95% of those people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.

Those with eating disorders also have the highest risk of death of any mental illness. For this reason, it is important to talk to your child about eating disorders if you suspect an issue.

"If a parent is concerned about a behavior they are observing in their child, I think they should definitely address it with them," says Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, a psychologist and certified disordered eating specialist with Eating Disorder Therapy LA. "The risk of asking about it is lower than the risk of not asking. They can let their child know that they are observing some behaviors and let them know they are worried—they can do so without suggesting other behaviors."

How to Talk About Eating Disorders

Most people would assume that you should approach eating disorders just like you would any other topic that could impact kids or teens—by talking about it. After all, you are encouraged to talk to about everything from sex and dating to drinking and vaping.

When it comes to general education about eating disorders, however, that may not be the best approach.

"Eating disorder education is tricky," says Dr. Muhlheim. "There is no research to support the idea that teaching children general information about eating disorders is helpful, and there is evidence to suggest it may be harmful."

She explains that teaching a child or teen about eating disorders generally means telling them about disordered eating behaviors. This can lead to the adoption of these behaviors.

Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD

There is no research to support the idea that teaching children general information about eating disorders is helpful, and there is evidence to suggest it may be harmful.

— Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD

Talking About the Dangers of Dieting

If you want to teach young people about eating disorders, Dr. Muhlheim suggests that parents instead teach their kids about the dangers of dieting, a behavior that is the most common gateway into an eating disorder. You also should not talk about healthy eating but should express and model flexible eating with an "all foods fit" philosophy.

"Parents also can model and teach body positivity and intuitive flexible eating, which may help protect against an eating disorder," she says. "[They also] should avoid labeling foods as 'good' and 'bad' or talking about dieting or disparaging people in bigger bodies."

Try to educate your kids about body diversity—the fact that bodies naturally come in different sizes and shapes and that no one body size is superior. You also can talk to your kids about what they are learning about fitness and health in general.

"Unlike most other mental disorders, eating disorders tend to be glorified in our culture," says Dr. Muhlheim. "Thus, [talking about eating disorders] must be done with care not to describe eating disorder behaviors."

Parents can also teach children about the unrealistic images of bodies they see in media and how these images are used in marketing, she adds.

Tips for Talking About Eating Disorders

It is not always easy to talk about eating disorders, especially with someone you love. But, people who are in recovery from an eating disorder often indicate that the love and support they received from their family and friends was a vital part of their recovery.

For this reason, you need to consider talking with your child or your teen if you have seen signs of disordered eating. Here are some tips on how best to approach the topic of disordered eating.

Make a Plan

When it comes to addressing eating disorders with your child or teen, it is important to learn everything you can about the issue from reputable source. Learn how to distinguish between the myths and the facts surrounding eating disorders, weight, and nutrition says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a licensed psychologist specializing in eating behaviors as well as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.

Dr. Goldman also suggests having a plan before addressing issues with your child or teen. Think about what you want to say and when you want to say it.

"If you need to, practice what you are going to say," she suggests. "By practicing, or rehearsing, you will feel more prepared and less anxious about having this conversation. I also recommend that you have any difficult conversation at a time when everyone is calm and not already heated or emotional."

Try to avoid having these discussions during mealtimes or around food, Dr. Goldman says. "Both of you may already be quite anxious around mealtimes, so don't add an extra layer of anxiety to an already potentially anxiety provoking situation."

You also should seek support for yourself, she adds. It is normal to need help coping with this situation.

"Don't feel embarrassed or ashamed by it," Dr. Goldman says. "There are professionals available who can help you navigate this."

Open With Questions

Any good relationship begins with keeping the lines of communication open. But, too many times, parents resort to lecture mode and talk to their kids about what they are seeing or what they are worried about. When this happens, your kids are likely to shut down or tune you out.

Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

Having open and honest conversations shows your child or teen that you are welcoming these conversations so they may feel less anxious and overwhelmed to come to you if they need to.

— Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

Instead of opening with a warning of the dangers of eating disorders or elaborately describing how worried you are, start with some open-ended questions, keeping the conversation about feelings instead of food.

"It’s important to have open conversations and not ignore the fact that some people struggle with the way they eat, their appearance, and thoughts surrounding food," says Dr. Goldman. "Having open and honest conversations shows your child or teen that you are welcoming these conversations so they may feel less anxious and overwhelmed to come to you if they need to."

Eating disorders are sometimes driven by emotions, so ask questions about how they are feeling and what is going on in their life. You might discover that your child is feeling sad, out of control, or overwhelmed. Or, you might discover that they are struggling with self-esteem. Based on what you learn, you can then guide and support your child through relevant conversations.

"One of the most important things to remember when you do find time to talk, is to be calm, direct, and caring," Dr. Goldman adds. "Make sure that your child or teen is reminded that you care about them and you are having this conversation because you care and want to help. Express your concerns with them in an open and honest way."

Refrain From Commenting on Their Body

Sometimes eating disorders develop because of an obsession over physical appearance. Food becomes the focal point because children or teens believe that they can achieve what they want by controlling what they consume in some way.

As a parent, try not to comment on your child's appearance or weight. Instead, focus on their internal strengths like their kindness or generosity.

"If at all possible, we should try to avoid commenting on one’s bodies," Dr. Goldman says. "It’s OK to share things like, our bodies change overtime, we all have unique bodies, but try to not focus on [the appearance] of one’s body."

Choose Words Carefully

Going into a lot of detail about eating disorders or describing specific behaviors can backfire. Instead of helping your child see the dangers that eating disorders pose, you instead run the risk of equipping them with additional ideas on how to accomplish their goals.

You also need to be cautious when talking about specific behaviors you have witnessed and you want to express your concern. Ask questions and allow them space to talk but avoid shaming your child or telling them what they need to change.

"Don't use accusatory language or say things like 'You are eating too much,' 'You aren't eating, just eat,' or 'You are exercising too much,'" Dr. Goldman says. "Remind them that you care about them, you are here to talk and help them, but also remind them that there is no shame in struggling or admitting that you are struggling. Eating disorders are real, and there is help available."

Offer Empathy

Though it is tempting to offer to try to fix this situation for your child, you are not going to accomplish much if you go this route. Instead, your child needs to know that you care about them and that you are there to support them.

Do what you can to make them feel safe. Be approachable and listen to what they have to say.

"Oftentimes, when people are struggling they need to know they are heard," explains Dr. Goldman. "Start with showing empathy and making sure your child knows you are here to listen. At some point, you will need to offer advice and/or encourage them to get help, but that can be framed in a way that you are here to support and help them along the way."

And, if you feel like the conversation did not go well or that you made mistakes along the way, don't be too hard on yourself. The important thing is that you shared your concern and let them know that you were there for them.

How to Get Help

Eating disorders are not uncommon. Now, with social media and filtered images, as well as influencers and celebrities sharing their workouts as well as what they are eating in a day (or not eating), it is a lot for a person to take in, says Dr. Goldman. This barrage of information can have an impact on a young person.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing more disordered eating thoughts and behaviors," she says. "This is not your fault. It’s a great first step that you are acknowledging that your child may be struggling and now showing them, and sharing with them, that you are here for them to help them get the support they need is imperative." 

Do what you can to be there for your child and support their recovery. Ask the therapist or dietitian how you can collaborate with with them. And keep the lines of communication open, learn what you can about eating disorders, and become an advocate for your child.

"Most children are not able to overcome eating disorders on their own or just with the support of a therapist or dietitian," Dr. Muhlheim says. "[They] also need parents to help them eat adequate amounts of food at mealtimes in order to recover."

Parents looking for additional support or ideas also can contact Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (FEAST), Dr. Muhlheim adds. This organization is a global support and education community for parents of those with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and more.

"Getting help early can help your child or teen have a better chance of recovery," adds Dr. Goldman. "Also know that even if your child may not have a diagnosable eating disorder, they may be struggling with thoughts surrounding food, their eating, and/or their body, shape and weight. Someone does not need to have a diagnosable mental illness in order to seek help. There is help available, and not just for your child, but also for you to help navigate this and feel supported along the way."

A Word From Verywell

Discovering that your child or teen may have an eating disorder is disconcerting to say the least. But try not to dwell on the worry and concern you are feeling and instead focus on being proactive. Start with a conversation with your child. Listen to what they have to say and let them know you are there for them.

If you are concerned that your child has an eating disorder, trust your instincts. Contact a healthcare provider for an evaluation and do not be afraid to get a second opinion if you feel like they are not taking you seriously.

1 Source
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  1. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. Eating disorder facts.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.