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Mental health is always a touchy subject, and it’s not easy for parents to speak to their kids about disorders in that category. When approached by family and friends, teens may choose to stay silent about their troubles and try to find solutions on their own. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are no different – teenagers with these disorders usually don’t want to talk about them. However, treatment and recovery begin with a conversation.

Adolescence is a crucial time for physical and mental development and the time when eating disorders most often arise. Although it’s a hard thing to do, parents should be on the lookout for disordered eating and exercise behaviors, and be ready to talk to their kids about them. With these tips, it is possible to get past the barriers and have an honest dialogue with their kid. First, parents should learn what to look out for.

Eating Disorders and Their Signs & Symptoms

Each kind of eating disorder has different criteria that a doctor or psychiatrist would deem necessary to make a complete diagnosis, but many eating disorders share common characteristics. The following behavioral and physical symptoms can indicate that there is a developing eating disorder such as binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, or bulimia nervosa. Please also note that a person may have more than one type of eating disorder, at the same time, or sequentially. Some symptoms to look out for include:

  • Counting calories obsessively
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Avoiding eating in public
  • Negative or distorted body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Food rituals like refusing to eat if different foods touch on the plate
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Stomach cramps
  • Trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Binge eating episodes
  • Always feeling cold
  • Extreme weight loss or weight gain
  • Social isolation
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Difficulties concentrating

If parents see any of these signs, they may want to contact a professional eating disorder specialist or a therapist who focuses their practice on eating disorders. Meanwhile, parents can begin to sensitively begin probing the subject.

First, Make Sure They Feel Safe and Not Being Judged

When talking about a sensitive topic that their kid is resistant to broach, parents should ensure they are doing everything they can to create a safe space for them. Teens may fear being judged by their parents if they talk about their eating behaviors. If they feel threatened or judged, they may not be willing to talk about the situation in a productive fashion.

Start out by making it clear you love them and they are not in any kind of trouble. Let them know this conversation is only to explore how they are feeling.You’ll want to make sure you avoid any facial expressions, or certainly any language, that implies disappointment, anger, or sadness. Overall, parents must be there to support their teens on the path to getting help for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa and to keep the conversation going.

Use Compassionate Language

This is related to the concept of being non-judgmental. When your kid is displaying disordered eating behaviors, you as a parent might be frightened or frustrated. However, this shouldn’t be communicated – it’s all about them, not you as the parent. Being compassionate and focusing on their feelings will open up lines of honest communication about the importance of treatment. With this approach, parents can show their teens they care and express their love without pressuring them to admit something or make a dramatic confession.

One way to show compassion is to try and put yourself in your kid’s shoes. After all, parents were teenagers once, too.You may have had a problem you didn’t know who to talk to about. By considering the situation from their perspective, you may be able to display more empathy, which will set your kids more at ease.

Avoid “You…” Statements, but Use “I Feel…” Statements

In any kind of serious talk about sensitive subjects, you should avoid starting statements with “You…” For example, saying something like “You aren’t eating enough and it worries us,” makes the statement of concern sound like an accusation.Instead, parents can use “I feel” statements to avoid inciting shame or guilt. You may say something like “I feel concerned about your eating lately. Can we talk about it?”

This approach helps teens from feeling attacked or shamed during this conversation and hopefully frees them to feel comfortable with opening up.This can help their teens see their status from a new perspective, potentially helping them understand their need for eating disorder treatment. At the very least. It might convince your kid that you are on their side and not judging.

Don’t expect to Solve Everything With One Conversation

Sitting down for one large, climactic conversation may seem like the way to do things, especially if you’ve seen movies or TV about interventions. However, recovery from mental health disorders like eating disorders is rarely a linear, simple journey. You may have to have several talks or even several stints in treatment for eating disorders before progress is made.

Parents can help their teens remain comfortable with the talks by keeping them short and low-key. There are myriad opportunities in daily life that you can take advantage of.

Parents can find time to talk to their kids about eating disorders while:

  • In the car
  • Walking the dog
  • Running errands
  • Taking a walk in the park
  • Cleaning the house

These conversations shouldn’t be anything but casual and as light in tone as possible. Keeping the tone light and non-confrontational keeps teens from feeling as if they are being put on the spot. They may be receptive after several short, causal talks to talking about their struggles with disordered eating behavior and the idea of going into treatment.

Ask What They Want

Although you may be concerned or scared about your kid’s eating and exercise habits, it’s notoriously difficult to force someone into accepting the need for treatment if they aren’t ready. If you try to force it, they might not see how dangerous these conditions can beand reject the very idea of eating disorder treatment.

Every conversation you have with your kids about eating disorders and potential residential or outpatient treatment is a small step. Each time, you should ask what they want and how they feel. They may be resistant at first – in fact, they probably will be. But over time, their wants regarding treatment can change. They may become aware that their disordered eating behaviors are affecting other aspects of their life, and they may become receptive to hearing what you and the specialists have to say.

Eating disorders have many negative physical and mental consequences, and although parents should be aware of them, you shouldn’t focus on doom and gloom. Ask your kid how they are feeling and react to that, rather than push a list of consequences and scare tactics.

Always Be Patient

Even when using a compassionate, judgment-free approach, parents can expect to be met with resistance from their teens. This reaction often arises due to denial or an unwillingness to accept help. Eating disorders can cause decreased brain function, and also reinforce themselves in the mind of the person suffering, making it difficult to see the path to becoming recovered. Keep that in mind when you feel frustrated (and you will).

Always stay calm and be patient with your kid. They’re likely struggling with their emotions and with feelings of guilt and shame caused by their disorder. If you show anger or frustration, it may push them further away from accepting help– or it could push them into an outright rejection of what you have to say. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to remain calm and patient.

Be Open to Questions

If they become more receptive to the concept of eating disorder treatment, your kid might have a lot of questions. You should encourage this. The ability to ask questions makes teenagers more comfortable putting the idea of treatment into their own terms. They can make the idea of a recovered life more of a goal to attain than something that seems unrealistic and unattainable. This helps them approach the issue as a problem-solver rather than someone in need of help.

Early on, especially when they are still resistant to accepting help for their eating disorder, your kids might not have a lot of questions. Parents can provide literature or websites for their kid to do their own research, which can answer questions you can’t, and may prompt new questions. Through this approach, you can explore your options together as they regard the disorder itself and possible options for treatment.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Parents can make the most of every talk with their teens by listening far more than they speak. As a parent, your thoughts and feelings matter, of course, but only tangentially to your kid’s. Don’t dominate the conversation. Let them finish their statement and allow them to process their thoughts and find the right words before chiming in yourself. This keeps stress levels low for everyone.

Listening without immediately replying also lets you temper your emotions and keep an even keel as discussed above. At an emotionally fraught age life adolescence, discussing a disorder such asanorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can bring up a lot of strong feelings. When you give your kid’s statements room to breathe and careful consideration, you lessen the tension and cause trust. By giving their teens time to listen and share their own thoughts, parents can keep the conversation flowing without causing stress.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.