When is it time for your child to talk to a therapist about disordered eating?
Deciding whether therapy is the best option for your child can feel complicated for many reasons. Maybe you’ve noticed changes in your child’s behavior. Or perhaps a friend, family member, teacher, or healthcare provider has raised a concern. Whatever the case may be, it’s understandable if you feel unsure, overwhelmed, and/or emotional.
First of all, all of your feelings are normal and valid. Second of all, there are steps to get grounded and gain more clarity. While this isn’t a complete list, it may be a helpful place to start.
Steps to figuring out if therapy is right for your child:
- Know what to look out for
- Educate yourself about the benefits of therapy
- Establish your support system
Let’s break down each step.
What to look out for
As with other behaviors, disordered eating can be difficult to see if you don’t know what to look for. Start by noticing your child’s eating habits, mental and emotional state, and/or physical wellbeing.
Shifts in eating habits could include:
- Restrictive eating
- Binge eating/Eating when they are full
- Use of laxatives, vomiting, or excessive exercise after eating
- Eating alone
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
Changes in mental and emotional state could include:
- Nonstop pursuit of thinness, fear of gaining weight
- Unwillingness to maintain healthy body weight
- Distorted body image
- Seeing their value as solely driven by body size/shape
- Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about food consumption
Shifts in physical well-being could include:
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
- Brittle hair and nails
- Dry skin, dull hair
- Severe constipation
- Lethargy, sluggishness, and feeling tired all the time
- Stomach discomfort
The signs and symptoms listed above could point to an eating disorder. If you’re noticing a shift in one of these areas but not another, it’s still a good idea to speak with a professional. For example, those in bigger bodies suffering from eating disorders often fly under the radar because of the bias that only those in very thin bodies experience disordered eating.
All of this can be very difficult to think about, but know that there are many ways to support your child and early intervention is safest and most effective.
Educate yourself about therapy
Therapy is proven to be very effective for addressing body image concerns. Therapists are an important part of the team children need to work with if they are experiencing disordered eating habits, or have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. A therapist can help your child identify what issues are influencing their relationship with their own body and food. Then they can recommend how to provide support.
There are many kinds of effective therapies for eating disorders. Some of the most popular include:
- One-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy
- Group cognitive behavioral therapy
- Family-based therapy
It’s important to know that treating an eating disorder requires a team of experts, including you as the parent. Being a safe, non-judgemental space for your child to come to is so important. In addition to your support, the pediatrician and a therapist, you may need to work with a dietitian familiar with eating disorder recovery and in some cases, hospitalization or intensive outpatient therapy may be most beneficial.
Lean on your support system
As you move through this process, it’s very important to have your own support network. Friends, family members, and even a therapist of your own can help you stay grounded. You might also consider joining a support group so you can learn what’s worked for other families. Whatever the support looks like, remember you aren’t alone and there absolutely is a path forward.
If you still have questions, talk to your pediatrician and/or use the National Eating Disorders (NEDA) screening tool.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
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- “Eating Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health. January, 2023. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders
- “Eating Disorder Screening Tool.” National Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Staff. 2022. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool
- “Eating disorder treatment: Know your options.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic Staff. July 14, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/in-depth/eating-disorder-treatment/art-20046234
- Hornberger, LL. “Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents.” American Academy of Pediatrics. 147(1). Web. January 2021.
- “Therapy to Improve Children’s Mental Health.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. April 19, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/parent-behavior-therapy.html
- Laurie L. Hornberger, Margo A. Lane, THE COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE, Laurie L. Hornberger, Margo Lane, Cora C. Breuner, Elizabeth M. Alderman, Laura K. Grubb, Makia Powers, Krishna Kumari Upadhya, Stephenie B. Wallace, Laurie L. Hornberger, Margo Lane, MD FRCPC, Meredith Loveless, Seema Menon, Lauren Zapata, Liwei Hua, Karen Smith, James Baumberger; Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics January 2021; 147 (1): e2020040279. 10.1542/peds.2020-040279. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/147/1/e2020040279/33504/Identification-and-Management-of-Eating-Disorders?autologincheck=redirected