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Eating disorders: advice for parents

If your child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, here's what you can do to help.

If your child becomes withdrawn, touchy or moody, it might make it difficult to talk to them. It may be even more difficult if they cannot accept they have a problem.

But talking about their condition is needed for their recovery, so keep trying.

They might come across as angry, even if they're really feeling scared or insecure.

It might be difficult for them to talk about their feelings, so be patient and listen to what they're trying to say.

It can help if you:

  • stay calm and prepare what you’re going to say to them – do not blame or judge them, just focus on how they're feeling
  • avoid talking about their appearance, even if you’re trying to say something nice
  • try to use sentences starting with "I", like, "I'm worried because you do not seem happy", rather than sentences beginning with "you"
  • avoid discussing people's diets or weight problems
  • try not to feel hurt if they do not open up straight away
  • do not be upset if they are being secretive, because this is part of their illness, not their relationship with you

Get advice on how to talk to your teenager

Mealtimes can be particularly difficult. You may find the following advice helpful:

  • if your child is in treatment, ask their treatment team for advice on how to cope with mealtimes
  • try to make meal plans with your child that you both agree to
  • agree with the family that none of you will talk about portion sizes, calories or anything else about the meal
  • avoid eating low-calorie or diet foods in front of them or having them in the house
  • try to keep things light-hearted and positive throughout the meal, even if you do not feel that way on the inside
  • if your child tries to get too involved in cooking the meal as a way of controlling it, gently ask them to set the table or wash up instead
  • try not to focus too much on them during mealtimes – enjoy your own meal and try to make conversation
  • a family activity after the meal, such as a game or watching TV, can help distract them from wanting to purge or overexercise
  • do not worry if a meal goes badly, and just move on

If your child is being treated for an eating disorder, their treatment team will play a big part in their recovery.

But do not underestimate the importance of your love and support.

It may help to:

  • learn as much as possible about eating disorders, so you understand what you're dealing with
  • keep telling them that you love them and will always be there for them
  • make them aware of the professional help available
  • suggest activities they could do that do not involve food, such as hobbies and spending time with friends
  • ask them what you can do to help
  • try to be honest about your own feelings, as this will encourage them to do the same
  • be a good role model by eating a balanced diet and doing a healthy amount of exercise
  • try to build their confidence, for example, praise them for being thoughtful or congratulate them on something they've done

Ask your GP or a health professional in your child's treatment team for advice on how to help at home.

It's important the whole family understands the situation and has support.

The following organisations offer advice online:

You can also ask your GP about support groups for parents caring for someone with an eating disorder.

Find services for people with eating disorders