Talking to your child about an eating disorder

Image: Clement

The number of young people treated in hospital for eating disorders is rising. Some believe social media is partly to blame. Here are some tips for talking to your child about this difficult subject

Talking to your child about an eating disorder for the first time

  • Get some help for yourself first by talking to a friend or professional about your concerns.
  • Prepare what you want to say, and how you’re going to say it.
  • Choose a place where you both feel safe and won’t be disturbed.
  • Choose a time when neither of you are angry or upset – avoid any time just before or after meals.
  • Have some information about eating disorders to hand. The eating disorders charity Beat has some excellent information and support for parents. Refer to them if your child seems to be listening, or leave resources behind for them to look at on their own.
  • Talk to them one-to-one. If other people are around, the person you are talking to may feel you’re ganging up on them.
  • Be prepared for them to be angry and emotional, and say hurtful things. Let them get it out and try not to lose your cool.
  • Don’t be disheartened if you’re met with denial.

What to say and how to cope

Avoid commenting on weight gain/ loss or appearance

Sometimes it can feel impossible to say or do the right thing when it comes to eating disorders. Light-hearted comments like ‘you’d better not lose any more weight or you’ll disappear’ can give a perverse sense of achievement to the sufferer, further fuelling their eating disorder. Meanwhile, voicing worries with more seriousness can make the sufferer defensive, in the fear that you might try to deter them from continuing their ‘diet’.

It’s better to steer clear of weight-talk altogether and focus instead on what is going on underneath. Instead of saying, ‘I’m worried about you, you’ve lost a lot of weight recently’, try, ‘I’m worried about you, you’ve seemed very sad and withdrawn recently’. It is so important to avoid seeing weight as the ‘central issue’ – it’s generally the by-product of something else.

  • Be aware that they’re likely to be feeling embarrassed, ashamed and scared.
  • Don’t label them or attempt to trick them into admitting they have an eating disorder.
  • Re-affirm your love for them – ie: if they say, ‘I hate you,’ you say, ‘Well I don’t hate you, I love you.’
  • Use ‘I’ sentences (‘I am worried as I’ve noticed you don’t seem happy’) instead of ‘you’ sentences (‘You need to get help‘).
  • Thinking of the eating disorder as a gremlin or monster on the shoulder of the sufferer may help you to not take things that they say or do too personally, or to blame or resent them.
  • Aim to get treatment as early as possible. Children as young as six have been admitted to hospital with eating disorders. And multiple studies show that the sooner you get treatment, the better your chances of recovery.

Getting help

If a young person exhibits just some of the signs of an eating disorder, and seems unhappy and not themselves, it’s important to seek professional support, as smaller problems can develop into a more serious, long-standing mental health condition.

Beat's helpline is available for parents and carers and can give more advice on how to broach the subject of eating disorders. Call 0845 634 1414 or contact Beat on help@b-eat.co.uk

You can access support groups either in your local area or online and check out HelpFinder, Beat’s online directory to search for services near you.

Further reading

Anorexia Bulimia Care

Dr Linda Papadopolous's advice to parents about body image and social media

 

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

First published: July 2015
Updated: ​May 2018

 

Experts: 
Creative Commons Licence

Health and wellbeing

Color: 
Pink