Eating disorders are very common, especially among young women. Although we see a lot about them in the media, there isn’t much information about how to go about helping someone who may have an eating disorder. For parents, this can be especially frustrating since many eating disorders manifest as a child becomes a young woman and starts seeking more independence from her parents. If you believe your daughter has an eating disorder, you may feel uncomfortable bringing it up and you may be worried that your daughter will lash out or refuse to speak to you about it. However, it is your responsibility as a parent to address the situation and you may be preventing a great deal of harm.
If you need to talk to your daughter about a possible eating disorder, here are some tips:
(1) Give yourself enough time to talk. Trying to talk about a possible eating disorder on the way to school or right before your daughter goes out with her friends will put pressure on both of you to wrap up the conversation and won’t give you the space you need for both of you to relax and open up. You also want to avoid bringing up the topic during a meal, such as dinner, because people with eating disorders often feel uncomfortable eating in front of people as it is and pressing the issue over a plate of food may make your daughter more defensive.
(2) Be direct, but don’t be critical. Say clear statements, such as “I’ve noticed you’ve lost weight” or “I’ve noticed that you aren’t eating much” but never say things like “I noticed that you don’t look healthy” or “I think you’re sick and you need help.” You want to encourage your daughter to open up if she does, in fact, have an eating disorder, and telling her that something is wrong with her will put her on the defensive. Even if you’re emotional, avoid saying things that are meant to make her feel bad, such as “Do you really think you look healthy?” It will make her feel like the two of you are gearing up for a fight, not an adult conversation.
(3) It’s not enough to tell her to stop. Just saying that you want her to eat more or to stop throwing up is not enough. People with eating disorders hate their bodies and often feel like other people either don’t understand or are lying to them about thinking their bodies are fine, so your words may mean close to nothing and could shut her down. Instead, try to get her to admit to the disordered behavior and let her talk about how she feels about her body. Then the two of you can establish a plan to make her feel better. (This will usually involve contacting a professional.)
(4) If they deny the behavior or refuse to see a problem with it, try to keep the conversation open. Let them know that they can come to you and reinforce the idea that you are concerned because you love them. Then, on your own time, contact a professional and ask for advice. Based on your daughter’s age, symptoms, and situation, a professional will be able to give you guidance about your next step.
(5) Seek professional help for yourself if you need it. If your daughter has an eating disorder, you may experience your own feelings of guilt, frustration, resentment, sadness, or anger. It’s important that you recognize these feelings and work through them with professional help so you don’t end up taking them out on your daughter and harming that relationship.