Supporting Children in College Struggling with an Eating Disorder

College StudentWhen asked to write an article on Children in College Struggling with an Eating Disorder, my first instinct was to simply write, “Bring your child home from college and don’t let them go back until they are well.” But that would be an awfully short article, without much direction or insight!

My hope is that this article gives you enough information so that you can begin forming an educated decision about whether or not your child is healthy enough to be away at college.

My Personal Experiences With Children in College and Eating Disorders

You see, I’ve lived with remorse for years because my husband and I kept our daughter in college and didn’t set this limit, “Your job right now is being in treatment. When you are well enough, we will pay for more college. Until then, we aren’t paying one more dime.”

But no one told us that was an option, or that it was possibly our best ammunition against the eating disorder. Would either of us have listened anyhow?

Overemphasizing Educational Success

Many of the parents that I coach and the health care providers I present to also don’t realize that this may be the best option for children in college with an eating disorder, in part because our society values education so highly.

Our family was no exception. We thought college was a necessary life-progression for our daughter and we also thought it was a good idea for her recovery process. We thought if we gave her something positive to focus on, maybe she would get better.

College Became a Detriment, Not a Benefit

In reality, college was a distraction from our daughter’s treatment. And strangely, despite two overdoses, which were considered serious suicide attempts, we still didn’t fully accept the reality that eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental illnesses. (American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F.)

We were so desperate to keep her happy and in college, we didn’t see the forest for the trees.

In the long run, we have been able to see that allowing our daughter to stay in college when she should have been focused on treatment may not have been the best choice. We are still living with the sad fact that our daughter remains hijacked by these complex brain illnesses. I say hijacked because she is under the eating disorder’s power and cannot see that we are not the enemy and is choosing to have her life without us in it.

The Early Signs We Noticed In Her

We’ve lived with an eating disorder consuming our child for half of her life now. One of the signs we noticed early on was the way her thinking became very distorted.

We also saw a lot of these classic signs of an eating disorder as early as age 14:

  • Depressed/anxious
  • Isolating
  • Disappearing food
  • Obsession with size and appearance
  • Loss of interest in school and friends
  • Baggy clothing
  • Trips to the bathroom right after meals

Having the Conversation With Your Children in College About These Concerns

This is a very delicate matter that needs to be handled with open-ended questions such as, “What have you enjoyed at school so far this term?” Listening for tips that they might be open to discussing their health and then using “I” statements to express your concerns.

Before having this conversation, it’s recommended that you come prepared with researched resources and a plan of action. You will likely meet with some resistance as there is so much shame and secrecy with eating disorders. Also, many students feel their behaviors are ‘normal’ due high occurrence on college campuses.

Students may also feel that they are not “sick enough” to leave college for treatment, as many individuals are “high-functioning” and are able to continue with their school routines. However, most students who are struggling with an eating disorder are unable to understand the severity of their illness or the potential consequences that may result without professional intervention and help.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) states that 25% of college-aged women report bingeing and purging as a weight management technique (The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources. ” 2003) and 10-15% of people with anorexia and bulimia are male. (Carlat, D.J., Camargo. Review of Bulimia Nervosa in Males. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 1997.)

Creating a FIRM Plan

Once an eating disorder has been diagnosed and a treatment team is in place, it’s time to create your firm plan with firm boundaries for your student. Dr. Julie O’Toole at the Kartini Clinic wrote a great blog post in 2011 about what a ‘safety plan’ looks like.

This is important for all students, including student athletes. Some parents feel that sports can ‘protect’ their child from an eating disorder but in reality, many of the traits found in those with eating disorders are also found in athletes, such as:

  • Perfectionism
  • High self-expectations
  • Competitiveness
  • Hyperactivity
  • Repetitive exercise routines
  • Compulsiveness
  • Drive
  • Tendency toward depression
  • Body image distortion
  • Pre-occupation with dieting and weight (Bachner-Melman, R., Zohar, A, Ebstein, R, 2006. How Anorexic-like are the Symptom and Personality Profiles of Aesthetic Athletes? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 38 No 4. 628-636.)

Many student athletes may actually be at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder, due to heightened pressures to perform or excel at their sport. Certain sports that emphasize body size, such as gymnastics, long-distance running, wrestling, dancing, etc., may also increase a student athlete’s risk of an eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers. What we do know is that the decisions, just like treatment plans, must be individualized and include parents. When our kids are sick, they need us to be strong, supported parents who are knowledgeable and willing to set firm clear boundaries.



As parents we fear that if we don’t let them go to school or back to school they will become more depressed and possibly suicidal; they might run away never to be heard from again; they may be so difficult to have at home due to the eating disorder behaviors that the thought of keeping them there is overwhelming.


We also fear judgment from our community/family if we keep our child out of school. These are real concerns with real consequences. What we must be brave enough to face is that these are life-threatening illnesses and we must treat them as we would if the child had cancer: health must be the first priority, despite our fears.

Having the support of eating disorder professionals can be invaluable during this process of discerning how to best support your college student who may be struggling with an eating disorder. You may consider having an intervention type of meeting with a qualified eating disorder specialist, along with your college student, in order to discuss options for treatment, goals for recovery, etc.

Early intervention can also be helpful in preventing worsening symptoms and improving the overall prognosis of the eating disorder. Be aware of your own intuition and observe the concerns you may have about your loved one.

Never ignore your own judgments and seek out help and professional feedback about your own thoughts and feelings concerning your college student. As difficult as it may be to face the reality of your college student having an eating disorder, your awareness and steps toward intervention can make a life-saving difference and change in the one you love and care for.

Please see the mortality rates on the ANAD website so you can make the right decision for your child so he/she can have a bright healthy future.


We need to have it when we don’t think we can continue being strong…

Watching the big tall strong oak trees sway in the breeze while walking yesterday I was reminded of the beauty and strength of parents who are walking through the dark forest of supporting a child with an eating disorder.

We must have deep roots and big strong trunks that stand firmly no matter what comes along. Yet we must also be able to bend gracefully without breaking as the changing winds of the eating disorder move daily in our midst.

We must also whether extreme heat, storms, droughts as well as freezing cold temperatures and big heavy snowfalls that test limbs…sometimes to the point of breaking unless help is brought in.

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

About the Author:

Becky Henry, CPCC (Certified Professional Co-Active Coach)
Founder, Hope Network, LLC

Trained at The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), receiving her Certified Professional Co-Active Coach designation in 2003. National Award-winning author and international speaker Becky Henry, CPCC is the Founder and President of HOPE Network LLC and Infinite Hope Publishing. As a Certified Coach, Becky provides oxygen to caregivers of people with eating disorders and speaks internationally to train healthcare providers on the family experience of eating disorders.

Becky became an unwilling expert, as she and her family went down the challenging road of a child’s eating disorder.

Becky studied at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., and is a graduate of The Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael, Calif. She brings over twenty-five years of experience in leadership, meeting facilitation, conflict resolution, fundraising, time management, and real estate development.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 30, 2017
Published on Eating Disorder Hope.