Curious how to speak to your child that is being treated for an eating disorder?

Navigating the delicate balance of discussing food with a child or teen who has an eating disorder or what we call a “budding” eating disorder. (i.e. disordered eating that is just starting to develop in a developing adolescent or child).  And this can be challenging for parents. It’s important to approach the topic with compassion, understanding, and a focus on promoting a healthy and balanced relationship with food. Here are some strategies to help parents address the issue sensitively:

First and foremost, it’s crucial to avoid labeling food as “good” or “bad” or even “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Instead, focus on discussing food in terms of nourishment or density of nutrition and balance. All food is good food in moderation!  Encourage your child to view food as fuel for their body rather than attaching moral value to certain types of food. This will also be challenging for some parents if they tend to be in the camp of qualifying foods for themself that are “good or bad, healthy or unhealthy”. What we model and say about food around our children does influence their choices. Parents can help guide the child to understand that their body is like a machine and how we treat it can have long-term effects, so nourishing it with nutritionally dense food in moderation will help it to run most efficiently and effectively. 

When planning meals or snacks, involve your child in the process. Allow them to have a say in what they eat and empower them to make choices that feel comfortable and safe. By giving them some control over their food decisions, you can help rebuild their trust in their own instincts and preferences. This also will help with their desire for control and autonomy.  Every human no matter the age and stage, craves the ability to control things in their lives for themselves.  We as parents have the ability to help guide them by giving choices that are safe and agreeable for them while still allowing them to feel some power and control in the process. 

Avoid commenting on your child’s body shape or size. While it may come from a place of concern, discussing weight or appearance can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder (or a budding) eating disorder.  Instead, focus on promoting overall health and well-being through balanced nutrition and positive lifestyle habits. It is also important to build confidence in how the child or teen actually identifies themself and that can be fostered by praising their attributes, character and behaviors rather than focus on the “physical” appearance. An example is “I am so proud of how you handled that situation today at school with that kid that tends to bother you” or “I think you are so courageous for going to sleep away camp this summer.” 

Create a supportive and non-judgmental environment around mealtimes. Make an effort to eat together as a family when possible, and model a healthy relationship with food by avoiding restrictive behaviors, negative self-talk, or body shaming. Encourage open communication and provide a space for your child to share their thoughts and feelings about food without fear of criticism. LISTEN to them….sometimes just listening and not responding necessarily is the most powerful thing we can do for our children.  

If your child is receiving professional treatment for their eating disorder, work closely with their healthcare team to support their recovery journey. Follow their recommendations for meal planning and help reinforce positive behaviors and coping strategies at home. Remember that recovery is a process that takes time, patience, and consistency. It is a journey not a destination for all involved, so be patient with yourself as well, because you are learning a whole new language and possibly having to change your relationship with food and/or body as well. Practice lots of self-compassion and lean on supports when needed. 

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