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It can be very overwhelming and stressful to have a child with an eating disorder. While a parent can’t control this, there are things that a parent can do to support their child through this process. This article will cover some basic information about eating disorders and how to support your child in taking the first steps towards recovery.
What is an Eating Disorder?
An eating disorder is a mental illness characterized by disordered eating behaviors. These behaviors cause physical and emotional distress. One stereotype about eating disorders is that someone with this type of mental illness will be in a severely malnourished and thin body.
Eating disorders can affect any person, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or body type. There are different types of eating disorders, each with their own set of symptoms. The next section will discuss the different kinds of eating disorders.
What are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?
There are a few different kinds of eating disorders. An eating disorder is diagnosed based on the types of disordered behaviors that someone is struggling with. The different eating disorder diagnoses are:
- Anorexia Nervosa- Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by severe food restriction. This food restriction results in being underweight and malnourished. Someone with anorexia severely limits their food intake out of a fear of becoming fat or gaining weight. This fear can cause significant emotional distress. People with anorexia may also compulsively exercise, purge, or use laxatives.
- Bulimia Nervosa- People with bulimia engage in cycles of binging and purging. A binge is when someone eats an amount of food that is so large, most people wouldn’t eat the same amount of food in the same amount of time. These binges are followed with a behavior intended to offset the “consequences” of binging. Compensatory behaviors could be self-induced vomiting, laxative use, fasting, or compulsive exercise.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED)- BED is an eating disorder characterized by frequent binges. As mentioned above, a binge is when someone eats an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in the same amount of time. These binges are followed by feelings of guilt, disgust, and other distressing feelings.
- Pica- Someone is diagnosed with pica when they eat things that are not considered food, such as dirt, lead pencils, ash, or bricks. There is a wide range of items that may be consumed. This behavior is compulsive.
- Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)- ARFID is similar to Anorexia in that people with ARFID also significantly restrict their food intake. However, this food restriction isn’t driven by a fear of gaining weight or concern about their body image.
- Rumination Disorder- Rumination disorder is when someone regurgitates their food. Someone with this disorder may re-swallow, re-chew, or spit out their food. This behavior isn’t intentional and isn’t due to emotional discomfort with eating.
- Unspecific Feeding or Eating Disorder- This diagnosis is given when someone is displaying disordered eating symptoms, but they don’t fully meet the criteria for another eating disorder. This diagnosis is just as serious as other eating disorder diagnoses given the potential impact of eating disorder behaviors.
How to Tell if Your Daughter Has an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders can be difficult to spot. However, there are a few warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders.
What are Some Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders?
Some signs and symptoms of disordered eating include:
- Any behavior that suggests that weight loss or dieting is becoming a main concern
- Obsession or preoccupation with weight, food, or calories
- Skipping meals or only eating small amounts
- Isolating from friends and family
- Significant concern with body image
- Frequently checking in the mirror or doing other things to check the size or shape of their body
- Mood swings
- Changes in weight, whether losing or gaining weight
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Abnormal lab results
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Concentration difficulties
- Dental problems
- Frequently going to the bathroom right after or during a meal
- Exercising even if it interferes with other important activities or responsibilities
- Intense anxiety, depression, or guilt with eating or if unable to exercise
- Exercising even if injured or sick 
What to Do if Your Daughter Has an Eating Disorder
Many parents find it difficult to navigate talking with their daughter about their concerns regarding their mental health. There are a few things parents can do to handle this more effectively.
How to Talk to Your Daughter About Eating Disorders
One key feature of eating disorders is denial. Someone can really be struggling with disordered eating and lack insight into the severity of the problem.
This can make it difficult for loved ones to have a successful conversation with their child about their concerns. Here are a few tips for talking with your daughter about eating disorders:
- Express Concern Without Judgment- It makes sense to be worried or angry about your daughter’s disorder. However, it’s not going to be effective if your emotions take over and dominate the conversation. Try to go into the conversation with your emotions in check so that it doesn’t come across as judgment. You can say something like, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be more concerned about your weight lately. Is something going on?” or “I’m worried about you because you seemed like yourself lately. I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
- Stay Open- Your daughter may not be open to sharing about their disordered behaviors right away. This may be especially true if they aren’t aware of the severity of their disorder. If she denies that there is a problem or states she doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t push her. You can let your child know that you will be there to listen when she is ready. This plants a seed and builds trust.
- Offer Support- You can let your daughter know that you’re there for her. Even if you haven’t had the type of relationship with your kid where she shares her feelings with you, it’s not too late. You can also offer to take her to a therapist where she may feel more open to sharing openly about her mental health.
There are a wide variety of treatment options available depending on the severity of your daughter’s eating disorder. You can contact a treatment provider or treatment center for a consultation or assessment.
A trained eating disorder professional can recommend the appropriate treatment. It’s very important to see a provider, whether it be a therapist, nutritionist, or doctor who has specialized training in eating disorders. Not every provider has the training necessary to properly diagnose and treat these conditions.
While it is true that treatment is only effective if the patient wants help, treatment providers are trained to work with individuals at all phases of the recovery process. Believe it or not, denial and resistance to change are the beginning phases of the recovery.
Don’t let your daughter’s denial or lack of motivation intimidate you from getting them the care they need. Eating disorder treatment can be life-saving.
 National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Warning Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved October 5th, 2021 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms
Author: Samantha Bothwell, LMFT
Page Last Reviewed and Updated on October 12, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC