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How to Talk to Your Teen About Eating Disorders

teen

As a parent, you want nothing more than happiness and health for your teen. That’s why it’s so terrifying when you notice your daughter skipping breakfast or your son retreating to the bathroom immediately after dinner.

Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys practice unhealthy weight control behaviors, like:

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  • skipping meals
  • fasting
  • vomiting
  • taking laxatives

Those are scary statistics. But even if you think your teen may have an eating disorder, try to observe your teen’s eating patterns. There’s a difference between the occasional diet and an eating disorder.

Of course, if you have a nagging feeling something serious might be going on, it’s probably best to follow your gut. Talking with your teen about eating disorders is a good place to start. Once you get them talking, you can better understand what’s going on and figure out the next steps toward recovery.

How exactly can you ease into that difficult conversation? Here are some tips.

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Learn more: Types of eating disorders »

Ways to get the conversation going

Before you sit down to chat, you might want to read up a bit on eating disorders. There are three main types: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Knowing a bit about each can help you answer your teen’s questions.

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Set a time and place

Tell your teen you’d like to speak with them about something important. Even if this is met with a raised eyebrow or eye roll, be prepared to make the conversation happen. Let them know it’s nothing they did wrong and that they aren’t in trouble. Plan for a time when you are both free for a few hours, and choose a place that is quiet, private, and free of distractions.

Begin with an “I” statement

If you’re nervous about how to start the conversation, consider saying something like “I feel like something is bothering you.” Or maybe you want to refer to a specific event, like, “I notice you aren’t eating much at dinner, is everything okay?” You can go on with your concerns from there. Using “I” statements allows you to communicate clearly about your concerns without blame, which may make your teen defensive and unwilling to talk.

Expect some resistance

Understand going into your chat that your teen will likely feel violated. They may express their feelings with denial or anger. Even if you use “I” statements, your teen will likely feel threatened.

Someone with an eating disorder will often work very hard to hide it. Your teen may not like being confronted. They may even feel embarrassed that you noticed behaviors they thought were well hidden.

Try your best to stay calm, and don’t take these responses too personally. This can be difficult if there’s yelling or crying directed at you, but the reaction isn’t a reflection on your communication. It’s just part of the process.

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Listen

You may want to use questions that are open-ended questions versus ones that yield a simple yes or no. Once you bring up your initial concerns, sit back and just listen to what your teen has to say. Resist the urge to jump in and make suggestions, judgements, or other commentary right away.

You may not understand exactly what they are going through, but it’s helpful for your teen to feel like they are being heard.

Share from the heart

Again, your teen may not understand the seriousness of having an eating disorder. They may just be angry you brought it up. Stay the course. Explain that their health has everything to do with their future. Explain that you care very much about them and want to see them be healthy.

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Along these same lines, if you have personal experience with an eating disorder or related issue, it may be helpful to share.

How to get help and support for your teen

Make a plan

Remind your teen again and again that they aren’t alone. You are there to help them find support, whether that’s counseling or even an inpatient treatment center. Whatever you do, though, make a concrete plan that you will follow. This plan should preferably use the supervision of a medical professional.

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Seek help

There are also many places where your teen can find support. You may suggest they attend meetings at the local Overeaters Anonymous chapter or read through different online support forums. Most of these groups are free and open to adolescents.

Remain open

Maybe your teen wasn’t willing to chat very much or at all during this first attempt. Don’t give up. It may take several tries to get them to open up. Explain that you are always here to talk. Continue sending the message that you love them and want to help. These words aren’t in vain. It may just take time for the message to be fully received and accepted.

  • What are some helpful resources for parents who have a teen struggling with an eating disorder?
  • The best place to begin is the family doctor. They should be able to guide you as to where to find care and services. There are also several good resources available online, including:

    The Healthy Teen Project

    TeensHealth

    Life Teen Blog

    Bulimia.com

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Parent’s guide: Coping with your own feelings

First and foremost, you’re not to blame for your child’s eating disorder. You may feel like it’s your fault or like you did something wrong. The fact is, an eating disorder isn’t anyone’s fault. The best thing you can do for your teen is move forward toward recovery. This doesn’t involve spending time thinking of all the things you could have done differently.

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Don’t forget yourself and your feelings in this whole process. Watching your teen grapple with an eating disorder can be painful and stressful. Still, you need to take care of yourself. You may want to confide in a close friend or family member about your worries and other emotions. A therapist or support group is another great outlet that is also confidential.

Make sure that you also exercise, eat a healthy diet, and sleep well. Try to fit in some time each day to relax or do things that you enjoy.

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What else you can do

Beyond talking, there are many other things you can do to help with your teen’s recovery from home. Here are five ways to offer your teen support:

How to be supportive
  • Be a good example by eating healthy foods and balanced meals. Tune in to how you talk to yourself and others about food and body image. Keep comments on appearances positive, or focus instead on other traits instead.
  • Eat together as a family and try to make meals fun. You may even want to get into the kitchen to cook together. This way, food and eating may become a source of enjoyment instead of fear.
  • Set limits, but don’t be the food police. Engaging in power struggles over food may lead to more harm than good. Creating conflict about meals may cause teens to lie about their habits.
  • Consider setting some “natural consequences” for eating behaviors. A teen who decides to skip a meal, for example, may not be allowed to hang out with friends or drive a vehicle. Tell your teen that it is not a punishment — instead, not eating means it isn’t medically safe to do things on their own.
  • Foster self-esteem and positive body image whenever you can. Praise what your teen does that has more to do with their brain, athletic abilities, etc. Giving people value for far more than their looks is a strong message.
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