Here at Eat With Knowledge, we get many inquiry calls from concerned parents about their child’s eating habits and behaviors around food.
This could be in the form of under-fueling like talking about dieting, restricting calories, eliminating food groups, connecting food to “must work out”, or extreme picky eating. Parents can also be concerned about their child over-eating like sneaking food, extra snacking, overeating when not hungry, or eating when bored or stressed. Usually parents are concerned their child does not have a healthy relationship with food.
Parents usually feel anxious, angry, sad, and frustrated by what’s going on in their house.
“Weird” eating (or what I like to call “disordered eating”) or an eating disorder can come out of nowhere, but often times it’s a gradual build-up of many different things, leading to a moment of “uh-oh.” Parents usually tell me “[something happened] and now it’s time for us to see you”.
No matter how the child’s eating disorder or disordered eating started, or the “causes” of new eating behaviors (there are many!!), parents are NOT at fault and are a VERY important part of eating disorder recovery.
Parents make a powerful impact to support the work that we do in the office and continue that work at home. After all, we usually get 45 minutes with our clients on a weekly basis. There are another 6 days, 23 hours, and 15 minutes left during the week that our clients need support.
Our entire mission here at Eat With Knowledge is to help our clients feel fabulous about food. This mission extends to families and that’s why we all need to work together on behalf of the child.
Whether you are a parent yourself, work with parents, or just want to support parents, this advice will help you.
Here are 5 tips for parents to help their child in eating disorder recovery, written by Laura (Eat With Knowledge dietitian) and myself:
- Work with a team of experts: A child should have a team consisting of a primary care physician (or pediatrician), a therapist and a dietitian. This team has the greatest impact on eating disorder recovery and each provide vital support in different ways. The physician will manage growth curves, vital signs and any other medical needs/issues that arise. The therapist will help the child work through any emotional issues, stress, mental health concerns, or trauma and offer support and coping skills. The dietitian will ensure that the child is meeting all of their nutritional needs, work on family meals, help develop a positive relationship with food and body image, and provide additional support for the family for eating disorder recovery.
- Parents: Don’t blame yourself: There are many contributing factors that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. No matter what the “cause” is, getting the right treatment is important. Treatment can sometimes be vulnerable for parents, as they open up about what’s going on in their house and let outsiders in (your team of health professionals). We understand this and are here to help! Do not blame yourself or anything that your family may be going through. If you do this, you are likely to experience guilt and/or shame, which can interfere with your ability to help your child with their treatment and recovery. It’s empowering to ask for support.
- Don’t blame the child: Any child that has an eating disorder or disordered eating may not “think straight” at times. Though it can be very challenging, try to remember that when it comes to weight, body image and food, the eating disorder could be dictating many of the child’s actions and responses. Try to remain patient and empathetic towards your child. Understand that the child may be so entrenched in their eating disorder that they feel it’s a part of their personality. The parent needs to recognize that disordered eating part of the brain is existing for a reason: it’s our job to figure this out in treatment so we can strengthen the child and the family as well.
- Commit to the treatment, especially in hard times: Whenever possible, do not cancel or reschedule appointments with the child’s treatment team. When cancellations happen, it sends the wrong message to the child that everything is “fine.” Sometimes we hear “Well, we just want to give them more time to do the things they need to do.” If a child had a hard week, it’s even MORE of a reason to see their treatment team. Additionally, if there are two parents/households involved, it is important to present a united front. Parents are working as a team to help support the child and need to be on the same page. Sometimes it’s really helpful to have a family meeting with providers to outline expectations.
- Understand that recovery is not linear: Recovery from an eating disorder is a long road and there are a lot of ups and downs. We encourage all parents to focus on progress, not perfection. Try to acknowledge and appreciate the small victories. Try to refrain from showing anger or frustration when there are setbacks.
I want to leave everyone with a few books that I specifically recommend to parents.
As there are many different kinds of eating disorders and disordered eating, please know these books are my best general recommendations.
- How to Nourish Your Child Through An Eating Disorder
- Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder
- When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder
- For parents of picky eaters: Helping Your Child Through Extreme Picky Eating
Parents, thank you for all the work that you do with your children! We are so grateful to work with so many amazing families every day.
Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Eat With Knowledge in Nyack, NY. She is on a mission to help people heal from diets, and find peace and balance with their food choices. She leads a team of dietitians who support the philosophy, “Feel Fabulous about Food!”