When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: It's Not About Supper, It's About Support

August 14, 2017 Laura Adams, RD


We’re all told that family dinners are important for children during their formative years. But what happens when the family dinner table becomes a battleground between parents and a child struggling with an eating disorder?

“Eating disorders are a lot more common struggle for families than most people think,” says Laura Adams, registered dietitian nutritionist and eating disorder specialist at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach. “Every year, thousands of teens develop eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and related problems. It’s a struggle not just for the teen, but for the entire family.”

For the parents of a child with an eating disorder, it’s important to understand that the problem is more than just getting a young person to eat his or her dinner. Eating disorders are extremes in behavior which are often rooted in a child’s desire to control certain aspects of his or her life during the turmoil of adolescence. If untreated, these problems can cause severe emotional and physical harm.

The most known eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, which have been well-publicized for several decades. However, other food-related disorders, such as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, binge eating, body image disorders and food phobias, are also being more frequently diagnosed among today’s teens.

People with anorexia are afraid of gaining weight and often possess a distorted view of their body size and shape. They may believe that perfection is found in being exceedingly thin. Therefore, they eat very little, starving themselves of nutrients. In addition to restricting their food intake, many people will also exercise excessively, or at least until they are too weak to continue their regimens, putting themselves at risk for injury.

Bulimia is similar to anorexia in that food intake has gotten out of control. With bulimia, people eat to excess and then try to compensate by self-induced vomiting, using laxatives, or through excessive exercise. This behavior can be physically destructive and lead to compulsive behaviors that are difficult to stop.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a lesser known condition that sometimes gets dismissed as merely picky eating. However, people with ARFID struggle with eating and often lose excessive amounts of weight. For some, ARFID is related to fear of digesting certain foods and for others, it is situationally triggered. For example, a teen may not want to eat with others at the dinner table or in the school lunch room or be afraid of being seen eating alone. Some people with ARFID may go on to develop another eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.

For many parents, the signs of an eating disorder will be fairly obvious, such as an extreme change in weight. However, because these problems are emotional as well, you may also notice that your child withdraws from social activities, especially those involving food. He or she may also be depressed and lacking energy. And, you may notice an increased determination to work out/exercise, as well as a change in wardrobe to hide physical changes.

What should you do if you suspect your child is challenged by an eating disorder? Know that eating disorders are rarely reversed without specialized professional assistance. As a parent, you want to guide your child to get help. And, you want to offer encouragement as they start to become healthier. Here are some simple ways to assist in the process:

  • First, spend some private time with your child, state what you have noticed in their behavior, and explain that you are worried. Don’t be critical and get ready to listen if your child opens up.
  • Understand that changes in eating habits are a manifestation of deeper issues. Don’t pick fights at the dinner table, imploring the child to eat more. And don’t say things like, “If you just eat, you’ll be fine.” Instead, tell your child that you want to assist in getting help and feeling better.
  • Help your child develop healthy meal plans. For those dealing with anorexia, don’t only push highly caloric foods that will be rejected. The idea is to get your child healthy and eating normally, not instantly gaining weight.
  • Focus on inner qualities. Try not to talk about food, weight or body types. Talk about your child’s strengths, such as a friendly personality, musical talent or success at school.

“Teens with eating disorders need specialized professional assistance, addressing medical, nutritional, and mental health needs,” says Adams. “But they also need a loving and supportive family. That’s where parents and other loved ones can offer the most help and ensure the child’s return to good health.”

To learn more about the Eating Disorders Treatment Program at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach, click here or call us at (949) 499-7504.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



Previous Article
Mindfulness makes the miles count
Mindfulness makes the miles count

Kikkan Randall, four-time Olympian, on how to be mindful while training and exercising.

Next Article
Taking control through nutrition, positivity and self-acceptance
Taking control through nutrition, positivity and self-acceptance

Interview with Margaux Permutt, a registered dietitian at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, on the imp...