Anorexia & Eating Disorders in Children: What Parents and Family can do

When a child in the family develops symptoms of eating disorder (like anorexia nervosa, anorexia bulimia or binge eating disorders), other members in his/her family, in particular the parents may feel overwhelmed by the situation and even helpless.

The ways in which different families deal with the illness vary individually.

As parents or guardians the most immediate thing to do is to get for themselves support from a professional in treating eating disorders, be they doctors /psychiatrists  and/or psychotherapists.

What parents can do

The actual diagnosis and treatment of the physical and psychological aspects of the eating disorder is conducted by doctors. Usually these are done by specialists.

Parents can help the professionals by offering information on the family situation when these questions are posed to them by the diagnostician.  If there is such an interview given, it is best to provide the information as openly and honestly as possible.  This would facilitate un-hindered support for the children.

Once in the care of professionals, it is best for parents to allow the process to take place. 

It is a common reaction for worried parents to want to “take things into their own hands” when they perceive that help is not achieved adequately or quickly enough. Reacting to the child’s treatment in any way, so as to affect the relationship between the child and the professionals treating him/her, or to affect the child’s emotional state can be counter-productive.

If you are a parent of a child who is being treated for eating disorder, and feel uncertain or unpleasantness about the progress of the child’s treatment, do seek a conversation with the professionals in charge, before taking other action to change the treatment process.

Eating disorders arise and develop out of different situations. Sometimes the causes are linked to family dynamics, and other times it is not the case. Regardless of this, there is a tendency for parents and other family members to hold feelings of sadness, anger and guilt, as the result of realizing that a child is suffering from the disorder.

Difficult emotions being felt by parents, when ignored, can make problems worse, rather than better. This is because, when the emotions are pushed aside, they become stress factors that result in actions or behaviors that cause more stress in the family environment. In turn this may snowball into more problems for the child, and his/her other siblings.

It is hence recommended that parents themselves seek some kind of counseling from a psychotherapist, or a self-help group (if such is available).

Having counseling for parents, does not mean that the parents are in any way at fault, or have problems themselves. When parents go for counseling they are supporting the child by helping to provide a stable environment at home for him/her to get better.  

This short article is written with the wish that parents of children suffering from eating disorders take to heart that in order to support the healing of their children, they can do well by taking care of their own emotional state. Having a child diagnosed with eating disorder is, after all, stressful and riddled with questions and judgements of and from the self and others.

It is good to consider this metaphor taken from the aircraft emergency procedures:

“In the event of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first.”

The consequence of not following this aircraft safety advise is the loss of emotional bearings due to hypoxia (lack of oxygen in blood), rendering the person unable to help others, and worse…

In the case of supporting the child with eating disorder, counseling  for the self is the oxygen mask. It helps provide emotional stability in times of stress in the family.

Other Readings

Cottee‐Lane, D., Pistrang, N., & Bryant‐Waugh, R. (2004). Childhood onset anorexia nervosa: The experience of parents. European eating disorders review12(3), 169-177.

Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales, Gesundheit und Konsumentenschutz (2018). Essstörungen: Was Angehörige tun können. Web source from URL:https://www.gesundheit.gv.at/krankheiten/psyche/essstoerungen/was-angehoerige-tun-koennen. Retrieved on 06.2018.

Honey, A., Boughtwood, D., Clarke, S., Halse, C., Kohn, M., & Madden, S. (2007). Support for parents of children with anorexia: what parents want. Eating disorders16(1), 40-51.

Lask, B., & Bryant-Waugh, R. (Eds.). (2000). Anorexia nervosa and related eating disorders in childhood and adolescence. Taylor & Francis.

Crisp, A. H., Harding, B., & McGuinness, B. (1974). Anorexia nervosa. Psychoneurotic characteristics of parents: Relationship to prognosis: A quantitative study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research18(3), 167-173.

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