Teen Eating Disorders: Parenting Advice for the Healing Process

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“How much should I be involved in my child’s recovery from an eating disorder?” is a question parents frequently ask. I regret to inform you that there is a disagreement on the response to this query. Some medical experts think the youngster must be separated from the parent to learn how to manage the illness and heal independently. By taking this position, parents would be less involved in monitoring their children’s health and rehabilitation, and the teenager would be responsible for making progressively healthy decisions. But it’s crucial to comprehend the rationale behind this position’s promotion. First of all, too authoritarian or controlling parenting often stunts the healthy growth of any adolescent, mainly because, at this stage of development, the goal is for them to grow apart from their parents rather than remain near. The developmental requirements of a teenager run counter to the kind of control that parents of younger children can exercise to earn compliance successfully; thus, even in the absence of any psychiatric issue, there is frequently conflict in the parent-child connection. An adolescent, on the other hand, will reject these strategies.

To the dismay of parents, when youngsters approach adolescence, that docile, easy-to-get-along-with child may suddenly acquire a mind of her own, reject the notion that theirs is the essential opinion to consider, and favor peers instead. While this relocation may upset the parents, it is a regular growth aspect and shouldn’t be interpreted as disobedience or betrayal. Giving teenagers the space to complete the developmental task of separation (on the path to independence) becomes another critical component of successful parenting. To prepare for independence, teenagers must be allowed to make some independent decisions and deal with the mistakes that ensue.

Because the adolescent is attempting to regain control over some aspect of her being, in this case, to control what goes in and out of her body, excessively controlling behavior or an authoritarian parenting style can contribute to developing an eating disorder in adolescents. Yes, the parent would need to take a step back in these circumstances and release the child from the demands that are encroaching on her person, space, and emotional needs for independence to allow the adolescent to embrace alternative forms of coping that will help to pull her back onto a more normal developmental path. When a child develops a fear of growing up, their growth might also be derailed. This can happen either because parents have encouraged unhealthy reliance through enmeshment (i.e., over-involvement rather than over-controlling) or because parents have unnecessarily regulated their child’s life to the point where she feels incapable of making her own decisions and choices.

In contrast, parents giving their adolescent the proper amount of freedom to develop independence and make increasingly mature decisions and who are more evenly tempered and authoritative in their approach to child-rearing may need to move forward rather than backward in the event of an eating disorder diagnosis. The development of an eating disorder in an adolescent indicates a failure to thrive and mature in an otherwise healthy environment, which argues for more parental support rather than less. This is especially true if a child receives adequate support in the parent-child relationship and the developmental drive for separation and independence has been respected.

I explain this balancing to parents and teenagers by stating that as long as the adolescent is acting within reasonable expectations of behavior and healthy development, it is OK to recognize the adolescent’s growing demand for independence and flexibility in making personal decisions. This does not imply they won’t make mistakes because learning from them is necessary for growing up. However, this freedom is relinquished for a season until recovery is evident when an adolescent fails severely enough to harm oneself, others, or parents substantially. For instance, if drug usage has been confirmed, a parent is responsible for ensuring that illicit substances are not brought into the house, are not found on the adolescent’s person, or are not found in the adolescent’s possessions. In the case of an eating disorder, this means that the parents must make sure their child is getting enough nutrition and actively intervene in any food restriction, bingeing, purging, medication tampering, laxative use, or excessive exercise until the child starts to show signs of voluntary compliance and her thoughts, emotions, and body start to show signs of recovery. Parents can gradually reduce their level of involvement once a recovery path has been established and the adolescent exhibits consistent compliance. At that point, the adolescent is free to continue learning and using healthy coping mechanisms while continuing to lessen the problematic eating disorder behaviors.

In actuality, the precise nature of parental involvement and the delicate balancing act between safeguarding your child and honoring the developmental job of separation and individuation at this age will depend on the specifics of your family. But it’s crucial to remember the big picture. In the early phases of recovery, healing from the eating disorder and stopping your child from continuing the downward spiral are undoubtedly the main goals, and more parental involvement may be needed than less. However, only the adolescent can fully conquer the disease through personal knowledge and acceptance of the problem, skill development, and long-term lifestyle changes. As a result, at some time, the adolescent must take over control of the rehabilitation process from the parents.

Please read the Ezine article “Eating Disorders in Teens: Are Parents to Blame?” for an insightful discussion on this subject if you are debating whether you are to blame for your child’s eating disorder.

Clinical psychologist Susan E. Hickman, Ph.D., PsyD, is also an author, speaker, and businesswoman. She publishes a lot of articles about psychology and self-improvement. Visit for more details on eating disorders and other psychological issues, to get your free copy of “Top Tips for Mastering Anxiety,” and for more information. You can visit Dr. Hickman’s website for details.

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