Parents are Pivotal Forces in Eating Disorder Diagnosis
The appearance of an eating disorder, or disordered eating patterns that
may trigger one, is an indicator that a child is struggling with
emotional problems of self-esteem and behavioral difficulties with self
regulation. These signs are a parent’s call to action.
Remember that eating disorders are more likely to show up at home, in
kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms than in doctors’ offices, in physical
examinations or in laboratory tests. Like it or not, prepared or
unprepared, parents are primary diagnosticians.
Parents and families must understand that the malnourished child
afflicted with an eating disorder or with signs that may be precursors
to the onset of disease hasn’t the judgment or accuracy of perception to
perceive or acknowledge that these problems exist, or to assume any
degree of self-initiation or control in seeking solutions. Many
youngsters do not understand what healthy eating actually is; they may
assume that dysfunctional behaviors may be simple benign quirks. By
taking charge of the situation where their afflicted child is incapable
of doing so for herself, parents educate, nourish and prepare that child
to eventually assume self-regulation and self-determination.
Being in charge of a situation is in no way synonymous with taking
control of the child. Do not confuse appropriate parenting interventions
with intrusive parenting.
Interventions that Work
It is important to confront your child with your observations and
concerns, with the potential dangers of ignoring what might be the start
of an eating disorder. Defining a problem does not make it worse; it is
simply the first step towards finding a solution. Ironically, the most
potent way to exert influence over your child is through active
listening, hearing her fears and concerns, and
addressing them by reflecting back
her own concerns and requirements. Active listening not only gives
the parent a heads up, but also helps the child better know herself and
her needs better, an importnat first step in getting those needs met.
"I'm too fat and I ate before. …I don’t need to eat dinner. Anyway, I
don’t enjoy eating in front of a crowd of people.”
not fat. Sit down with the family and eat your dinner!" This
typical, but not terribly constructive response may become an invitation
An active listening response might sound more like
" What makes you think you are fat?"
" That way of thinking could make a person feel pretty badly about
herself. Is that how it is for you?”
" Are you trying to lose weight?
If so, do you have a plan of action? What might that
" Did you know that dieting or skipping meals is the worst way to lose
weight, that it can damage your metabolism, leading to obesity in your
adult years and potentially to eating disorders? Did you know that you
don’t have to be skinny or restricting food to the point of starvation
in order to carry a diagnosis of anorexic?"
" Hungry or not, it's dinner time, and we’d love your company.
Come and sit down and be with us, even if you choose not to eat. It’ll
be a good opportunity for us to talk and be together.”
“ Perhaps it might be a
good time for us to begin to think about getting some professional
counsel for you.”
What to do When an Eating
Disorder has Been Diagnosed
Where an eating disorder diagnosis already exists, parents and children
do well to use survival techniques for navigating rocky seas.
Here are a few:
Afflicted youngsters living at home:
Learn to recognize your feelings.
Are you aware of feeling anxious? Remember that anxiety has unique
ways of showing itself; some people become withdrawn and become
isolated, others become feisty, irritable, or intolerant of others.
Sometimes anxiety compels people to exert strict control over their
lives and their eating.
If you are anxious or depressed, know what makes you feel this way.
Are you afraid
of eating calorie-dense foods? of gaining weight? of not being able to
stop eating once you begin? of eating in front of loved ones? of being
expected to participate in meals? of feeling forced to eat when you
don’t want to? of having your secret eating behaviors discovered?
of the shame of feeling fat?
Know your facts!
Don't become a victim of commonly held myths and misconceptions about
food and eating. Recognize and understand that
The best way to lose
weight and keep it off is to eat lots of nutritious foods, including
all the food groups, in the form of meals, and at least three meals
There are no "bad"
foods, as long as what you eat is in moderation.
Young women normally
put on 20% of their weight in fat with the onset of puberty.
Anorexia is highly
curable when recognized early and treated effectively.
Devise a plan…and vow to follow it.
By anticipating a problem ahead of time, you are in a position to take
action to prevent yourself from falling more deeply into
self-destructive behavior patterns. By seeking professional help, you
can be assured that you will get the help you need to resolve problems
that at times may seem insurmountable.
Talk with your child about upcoming holiday festivities.
Anticipate together with him/her what the holiday experience
might be like with all of its feasting, and expectations of eating in
the company of others. Discuss various options for eating healthfully,
and for responses to possible inquiries. By helping your child put words
to her anxiety before events happen, you are helping him or her to be
prepared and feel more in control, teaching important life lessons about
When parents and children anticipate, address and seek to resolve eating
disorder problems together, healing tends to be most effective, timely
and sustained and the benefits far-reaching… affecting the life quality
of the entire family.