“My daughter has an eating disorder. What can I do to help?”
Parents email me nearly every week. Moms or dads share that their daughter has an eating disorder: anorexia, bulimia or other challenges with food and weight. They all want to know the same thing: what can I do?
Before I share what you, as a loved one, can do, I want to acknowledge that both sons and daughters struggle with eating disorders. If you are looking for signs or symptoms, here is a great article on what to look for. If you need treatment for your son, I’m happy to refer you to specialists who treat males with eating disorders.
Parents and loved ones can play a meaningful role in their daughter’s recovery! Below I’m sharing the six top things to do and what not to do!
1. Comment on your daughter’s appearance or weight. This includes compliments! Even “you look healthy” can be perceived as “I’ve gained too much weight” in the eating disorder mind. Also avoid talking about other people’s bodies or weight (including your own).
2. Try to convince your daughter that she won’t gain weight. You want her to know that you love her regardless of her weight. When she communicates she’s scared to gain weight, simply respond: “do you want to talk about it”? Let her talk. Validate feelings. Also, read what you can DO on #5 below.
3. Discuss calories, diets, exercise or her eating habits. Try to discuss things other than food. Try to discuss feelings. Do not compare dieting or someone’s weight loss to your daughter’s eating disorder. Eating disorder’s are mental illnesses. They have nothing to do with willpower or discipline.
4. Question her about whether she ate, what she ate or if she engaged in behaviors. Instead ask how her day was or about something specific she did unrelated to food.
5. Accuse her of lying about everything because she lies about the eating disorder behaviors. Understand that her lying about the eating disorder symptoms is from a place of guilt and shame and not wanting to disappoint you. If your daughter has an eating disorder, her lying is not indicative of her character but rather that she is struggling with a mental illness.
6. Talk during ‘sensitive’ times. Do not discuss treatment, your worries or important topics related to her recovery during meal time or other ‘charged’ times. Find a time outside of eating when your daughter is calm. Know that holidays can be especially triggering. Prepare for holidays by having any important conversations in advance of mealtimes.
1. Tell your child you care. It’s okay to share that you love her and feel scared. Always use “I” statements and make your feelings about you, not about your daughter or what she does. For example, saying things like “you’re hurting yourself” or “if you’d just eat more…” don’t help. Saying things like “I’m feeling scared and not sure what to do” are honest and reflect your feelings.
2. Admit that you don’t know what to say all the time. Share that you can’t understand fully what it’s like to have an eating disorder, but that you will be there to listen and to help her get the support she needs. Always encourage her to reach out to her support team.
3. Validate your daughter’s feelings even if you don’t agree with them. You do NOT have to validate her actions. Your daughter with an eating disorder has feelings that are absolutely real and causing her pain. Your job is not to talk her out of those feelings but to empathize, reassure her that it’s okay to feel and encourage to write down her thoughts and share with her support team.
4. Role model. Take care of yourself. Eat foods that are fun to eat AND that provide nourishment. This means, eating ice cream when you feel like it. Let your child see that you don’t restrict, feel guilty or try to ‘earn’ foods through exercise or eating healthy other days. There’s no need tell your daughter about your habits, but rather show her. What we do is far more powerful than what we say.
5. Evaluate your own biases around gaining weight and fatphobia (see this video I made on how to respond when your daughter calls herself fat). Your daughter thinks she is scared to gain weight. The truth is that she is scared she won’t be loved if she gains weight. If you have any biases around ‘fat’ people or have commented on people being overweight, this can strengthen the eating disorder’s power in linking fat with bad.
6. Get help! Get coaching or therapy for yourself! This is not easy to navigate and you don’t have to do it alone. I offer coaching services for parents. Often one to two sessions is enough to help parents or loved ones feel equipped with what they can do. If you’re interested, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you are a parent or loved one, I’d love to stay in touch. I created a special email group just for you so you receive only what’s helpful. Sign up below: