Strategies for Parents of a Child with an Eating Disorder

    (These strategies can be equally applied to both males and females.)


    1. Invite your son to an event that interests him (ball game, movie, theater, shopping, etc.). Enjoy the time spent without focusing on food.
    2. Whenever you stop somewhere for lunch or a snack, keep the conversation on topics that don’t relate to how or what he’s eating. Talk about interests, feelings, dreams, goals, funny moments, when you were a kid, etc. The sky is the limit.
    3. Expect your son to sit at the table with everyone else during a family meal. Don’t force him to eat anything; allow him to choose for himself. Keep the conversation light, lively, and fun. It’s not the time to play therapist. If he refused to dine at the table, let it go for the time being. But expect him to be at the table for the next meal. If he still refuses, come into his room, sit down next to him, and invite him to talk about how he’s feeling or the reason why he won’t come to the table.
    4. Make it a habit to keep lines of communication open. Be direct, honest, and genuine. If your son feels comfortable talking, put on your best listening ears and stay out of his way.
    5. A calm tone of voice can go a long way when trying to communicate a thought or feeling. Your son will be less defensive and more open to talking.
    6. Use “I” messages when sharing your emotions and perceptions. “I feel frustrated when I see you…” This sets the example of speaking from your own point of view without judging hers.
    7. It’s okay to set limits with your son, just like the rest of your kids.
    8. A person with an eating disorder should not be singled out and treated like a glass vase on a wobbly night stand. He is capable of handling his own feelings.
    9. Be yourself, but be fair, honest, direct, supportive, and use common sense. You don’t need to tip-toe around worrying whether or not you’re going to say or do the “wrong” things.
    10. Take advantage of moments when you are alone in the car with your son. Ask him about how he’s feeling, his day at school, how things are going with his friends. This is not the time to bicker about how thin he is getting or point out how annoyed you are with his obsessive compulsive habits.
    11. Show with your actions that you’d like to be invited into his world, but don’t force your way in. If he likes wrestling, then wrestle. Offer to take a run with him. Go to a movie together that he likes. Let him play his music during dinner. Help him with a school project, but do not take the lead. Use your imagination.
    12. If you’re finding yourself getting angry at trying all of the above and your son is still not cooperating, getting better, etc., say, “You know, I guess I’m feeling very upset right now. I feel I’m doing my best to support you and be flexible, but I can’t help but notice that you’re not willing to experiment with new ways of thinking and living, too. It hurts me to see you struggle, but I know there’s only so much I can do to help you.” This will set a great example of healthy boundary setting, expression of emotion, and that it’s okay in your family to talk and feel your feelings. It doesn’t matter how your son responds. The point is that you will feel little better for sharing your feelings, which is called taking care of yourself. This is not a selfish thing to do. On the contrary, it will bring you closer to your goal of getting your son to talk to you.
    13. Eat a healthy, balanced diet and avoid fad diets.
    14. Exercise to stay fit and not to obtain a ripped or “cut” appearance.
    15. Burn your scale in a campfire and see how long it takes to disintegrate!
    16. Avoid comments that associate body weight with being successful, happy, and fulfilled.
    17. Encourage your son to write a letter to his eating disorder and say whatever he wants. Do not request to read it. If he offers you to read it, do not edit it!
    18. Accept your son for who he is, not for what he does.
    19. Tell your son you are proud of him.
    20. Say “I love you.”
    21. If he is still living at home as an adult, strongly consider helping him find an apartment of his own. You may think he would destroy himself if he was alone and outside of your watchful eye, but the sooner you get over this fallacy, the easier it will be to “let him go” and come to terms that he is capable.
    22. Talk about girls with him.
    23. Your son's eating disorder is NOT your fault. It will be the easiest thing in the world to look point a finger at the person staring back at you in the mirror. You’ll hear that little “voice” loud and clear: “You didn’t love him enough. You should have been less strict with him. You shouldn’t have upset him with that comment about him losing weight lately. You shouldn’t have taken on that second job to buy the bigger house. You should have spent more time with him. You should have…” It will drive you insane if you focus on “should, should, should.” The point is that he has chosen to cope with hurt and pain by using an eating disorder. He made the choice, not you. If you’re convinced that something you did helped cause him to develop an eating disorder, then muster the courage to change your life, not his. He may just follow your example.
    24. Allow your son to be himself with his own unique personality, temperament, and interests. He doesn’t need to be “fixed.” He’s not broken. He does, however, need directions on how he can put his life together.
    25. What can you do to cope with your son having an eating disorder? It may sound strange to focus on you and not him, but all you can control is your own feelings, coping strategies, thoughts and beliefs, etc. Those with eating disorders need to be held accountable for their own choices, and need to see an example of loved ones in their lives choosing to be accountable for their own selves. It’s not cruel and unusual punishment to allow your son to suffer for the choices he makes, considering safety limits, of course. It sends the message that you believe he is perfectly capable of processing his recovery.
    26. Keep trying new approaches, being willing to “screw up” for the sake of your son’s health. If you make a mistake, apologize and do something to make up for it, then try something else. Maintain that innovative spirit. You’ll feel less helpless.
    27. It’s okay to express your feelings around your son. You don’t need to walk around on eggshells trying not to upset him or say the wrong thing. Be honest and direct, respectful and courteous. He needs you to be the parent and set the example of what polite, direct communication looks like, and that it’s okay in your family to talk about emotions—especially feeling them. 
    28. Figure out how to be a phenomenal listener. It’s not simply staying quiet and hearing what others have to say. Research how to do it and become an expert at it. If there’s one single thing anyone can do to help spark change in another person’s behavior, it is being a great listener.
    29. Give your son space.
    30. What can you change in your life that will reduce the communication barrier between you and your son? A great place to start is to simply ask him politely and sincerely. You’ll be amazed at the answers. Listen without comment, and reflect back in your own words what he’s trying to tell you.
    31. Focus on underlying issues, not food or weight. Are there hidden family rules that need to be put on the table? Are there old messages about “no talking, no feeling” that need your attention?
    32. Does someone need to swallow their pride and say “I’m sorry”? The power in those two little words is revolutionary!
    33. Medication is never the only answer, but it can be a part of the overall equation to achieve health. Be open to considering this temporary strategy. The eating disorder struggle is not simply lack of self-motivation. The human body is also chemically designed and fueled, which in turn affects mood, motivation, emotional management, and thought processes. Look at medication like the spare tire you put on your car after a flat. This flimsy tire isn’t designed for long distance driving. It’s only used to get you to the mechanic. Once your flat is repaired, you don’t need the spare anymore. Medication follows a similar pattern. Additionally, always complete your medication as directed.
    34. Underneath that emaciated frame lays the baby you once held in your arms after a painful delivery. At that moment, that little life was the most precious thing in the world to you. He was also helpless as an infant. That stage is now past. He is no longer helpless, so do not treat him as such. However, it is a necessity to still “cradle” (hugs, socks in the arm, pats on the back, wrestling on the floor, your undivided attention) him and tell him that he is worth fighting for.
    35. When was the last time you asked your son what he wanted to do with his life and not judge him for it? Judging is not the same as expressing your honest, heart-felt opinion. Judging is laughing at his idea, telling him he’s “too young to understand and know what is right for him,” lecturing about how much you know and he doesn’t. Expressing your own opinion is just that—an opinion. It’s using “I” language and being objective, leaving room for debate and constructive discussion, which also means listening to him and not demeaning his thoughts and feelings with funny looks, eye rolls, and sermons.   
    36. Get him professional help. Find a therapist your son is willing work with. If he is adamant about not wanting help, there’s not much else you can do at that moment to change his motivation. That needs to happen in his time. However, if he is under eighteen years of age, and he is dangerously low in weight, you need to get them help, no matter what it takes. If he’s eighteen and over, strongly encourage him to get help, but legally you can’t make him do so. It’s best to negotiate and do your best to be an advocate for him. If he is living at home, and he claims he wants to be treated as an adult, remind him that he is also choosing to live like an adult, which means living on his own. Maybe it’s time to hand him a newspaper to look for an apartment. Boundaries need to be set—on both sides.
    37. Never force food on him. You’ll never win this battle. You can expect him to sit at the table with the family during mealtime, but if he chooses not to eat much of anything, let it go. Try lightening up the mood with some fun conversations that have nothing to do with him.
    38. You don’t need to rearrange your entire living schedule around son’s eating disorder lifestyle. Sure, being flexible is reasonable, but you also have your own life to live. It’s not a selfish thing to be responsible for yourself, your job, your emotions, your other daily obligations. Your son is capable of handling this objective just fine.
    39. When in doubt, consult with other people. Ask around. Be open to suggestions. You don’t need to tackle this stressful time all alone.