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How to Talk to Your Kids About Anorexia Nervosa

It’s never easy talking to your kids about sensitive subjects like their mental health. It can make both parties feel awkward and uncomfortable, and Few subjects are more personal and difficult to speak candidly about than mental health disorders like anorexia nervosa. Typically, the first people to become aware of a teen’s issues with anorexia nervosa are their parents, coaches, teachers, or friends, but it falls on the parents primarily to make healthcare decisions. That’s why it’s so helpful to have a guide on how to broach the subject.

When considering whether eating disorder treatment is necessary or not, parents shouldn’t let their concerns get in the way of helping their kids. It is normal to anticipate an emotionally charged conversation – this won’t be like ordering a pizza. People who struggle with eating disorders also struggle with feelings of guilt and shame – about their bodies, about their eating habits, and their behaviors. You might think the best way to counteract an emotional response is to be cold and logical, but that can be counterproductive – and reciting a list of statistics about adolescent eating disorders is hardly going to make it easier.

However, taking the time to mentally prepare for a difficult conversation about the next steps can help; You and other people who love your kids like family and close friends can work together and help him or her accept the need for eating disorder treatment. To help parents and loved ones begin this vital conversation, we’ve highlighted a few tips below.

5 Important Tips for Talking to Adolescents About Anorexia Nervosa

1. Get Ready Beforehand

Education about eating disorders isn’t a part of what most schools include in their curriculum. That’s a real shame, because the more a person knows about the disorders, the easier it is to demystify them. Most children, teenagers included, don’t know how an eating disorder can affect the way a person thinks; they can’t see how disordered thoughts and behaviors keep the eating disorder going.

You can help by educating yourself and preparing your child to learn more about the dangers and health consequences of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. Gather resources that will help them understand the severity of an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. You can find all kinds of resources online, including here on our blog. This will help them to understand what they’ve been experiencing and learn more about the benefits of early intervention.

You might also ask your doctor or therapists (or your child’s) if they have any information like books or pamphlets, or if they can recommend someone to talk to. The more information you’re armed with, the better.

2. Be Compassionate but Firm

Your attitude as a parent in this situation will drive the character of the discussion.Your kid will almost certainly be defensive or resistant at first, and too draconian an approach will push them further into their shell. Your demeanor should always be calm and caring – they should know from the start that you are having this talk because you love and care about them.

Begin the conversation in a private space when everyone has adequate time to speak openly and honestly. Parents should approach the subject of anorexia nervosa treatment in a caring and non-confrontational manner. Never be judgmental! As long as you’ve established a place of trust and that you are not here to accuse them, they should become more receptive. Don’t betray that trust; instead and focus on disordered eating behaviors that have been easily noticeable at home and school.

By focusing on behaviors instead of focusing on “you” statements that come off as accusatory, You can help them see that there IS a problem, and there are steps to be taken that can help resolve it.

3. Listen

This is perhaps the most important step in any kind of emotionally charged conversation and it’s also a vital communication skill for any parent, regardless of eating disorders. Without good listening skills, there is a chance that parents could make their teen feel like no one cares or is listening to them. When that happens, they may turn to even more pronounced disordered eating behaviors; many cases of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are coping responses to emotional pain and distress.

Give your kids plenty of time to respond to what you’ve said, and don’t interrupt them when they speak. Try to keep your facial expression caring or neutral – body language can speak volumes as well. Remember to remain engaged in the conversation – sometimes people tend to try and think of what they will say next instead of hearing what the other party is saying. That’s a pitfall that can make them feel ignored.

Lastly, stay calm, and don’t simply put their concerns or statements aside – and take special care to avoid conflict. Becoming accusatory or disregarding what they’ve said will set the whole process back, and their eating disorder may worsen.

4. Stay Open-Minded and Stay on Track

If you’re not making any progress, try to remember that even though your child may not admit that there’s a problem, her feelings can’t be “wrong.” To burst through their resistance to talking about their eating behaviors, try to make them feel validated. You can accomplish this by saying things like, “I understand that you feel bad about your body” or something similar; try to include what they have said to you in your response. When you make an effort to understand what they are saying and validate their feelings, you make them more receptive to making change.

Also, you should remember to avoid getting sidetracked. Your kid might become hostile or accusatory, and try to steer the conversation away from her disordered eating behaviors. As always, stay calm and don’t take it personally – that’s their disorder talking. Periodically, you should summarize what your kid had been telling you – and also summarize what you are trying to say to them.Parents should once again restate their concerns and explain that anorexia nervosa treatment is essential for their health and happiness.

5. Always Finish with a Plan of Action

Even before you begin the discussion, you should have a plan of action ready – or several depending on the outcome. You may want to take the step of searching for anorexia nervosa treatment centers before beginning the conversation, in case things go well and they are ready to go into treatment.On the other hand, if the conversation goes badly, parents should be ready to try again with a new set of tactics and talking points, or be ready to locate a professional who can help. A regular appointment with a therapist specializing in eating disorders can help where a parent can’t.

In the better case, when the teen is responsive, parents can take the time to research anorexia treatment facilities that have adolescent specialty programs. They might express trepidation or concern about going to an eating disorder treatment facility, so offer to take them on a virtual tour of the facility (or go in person if travel and COVID protocols allow it).It can offset a lot of the push back against going into treatment when they see what the center is really like. Lastly, offer to make an appointment with them and to accompany them for an initial consultation at multiple anorexia nervosa treatment centers if necessary.

Don’t Wait – Early Intervention Saves Lives

It’s not going to be easy – but it’s necessary to have this difficult conversation. Anorexia nervosa can hinder a teenager’s life in the best of situations, and at the worst can end it. In every kind of mental health treatment situation proven fact that the earlier the intervention, the better the chances for recovery, it’s best to hold this conversation earlier rather than later. Stay positive – anorexia nervosa is treatable. You can make a difference in your teenager’s life today – overcoming anorexia nervosa means a happier and healthier future.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
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