How to Support Your Child Returning to School With An Eating Disorder

3 students in school

As a parent, you just want the best for your child. You would do anything for them. And when they are struggling or in pain, it is likely that what you want to do most is to simply make the problem go away.

While parents and families cannot “fix” an eating disorder any more than they can fix another illness, they can take an active role in a child’s recovery. In fact, support from loved ones is integral to the healing process. As your family transitions back to school this year, there are several things you, as a parent, can do to support your child’s recovery. In this blog, we’ll cover some challenges commonly experienced by students with eating disorders and provide strategies for parents supporting them in recovery.

Challenges of school for students with eating disorders 

As your family prepares for the return to school, it is important to consider the anxiety that often comes with the transition. It can be a tough and trying time for students of all ages. The change in routine often comes with changes in everyday activities, pressures, and mealtimes, changes that are likely only compounded this year as more students return to in-person learning. After significant time spent in virtual environments, the drastic shift may bring an overwhelming mix of emotions. In addition to these stressors, students healing from an eating disorder face the added challenge of balancing school with recovery.

Academic pressures

The pressures surrounding exams, homework, grades, report cards, social cliques, and future plans may trigger or exacerbate disordered eating in students. Many students with eating disorders also struggle with perfectionism, a trait that is often reinforced or celebrated in school settings.

Bullying

Bullying is an unfortunate experience in elementary through high school and can be a precursor to eating disorders. When students are made to feel bad about themselves or their bodies, the resulting stress may spark or worsen eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. The bullying may reinforce the eating disorder “voice” often experienced by those with eating disorders by echoing its cruel scrutiny and criticism.

Being labeled as too large or too thin will, unfortunately, have many negative repercussions on how someone will view or carry themselves throughout their life. While bullying can take many forms, it is clear that weight-shaming needs to be part of anti-bullying discussions. Bullying is never okay, and it can have a significant impact on the development of eating disorders. 

Sports

While sports are a popular and valuable activity for many students, some come with an increased risk for those susceptible to developing eating disorders. Sports like track and field, wrestling, cheerleading, and dance, to name a few, place an extreme emphasis on body size, weight, or shape.

It is important to discuss why restrictive eating, fasting, and overexercise for sports are dangerous for your child and can be damaging to their recovery process. When complimenting your child for their sport, be sure you don’t comment on or compare their body to that of other students in their sport. 

Social comparison

Eating disorders are particularly prevalent among adolescents and young adults, an age group that experiences acute body anxieties and tremendous social comparison. Cultures that idolize and put emphasis on appearance can have a large impact on how your children view themselves.

Online, social media platforms like Instagram and Tiktok play a huge role in how students see themselves and others. Young adults are being bombarded by social media ads about weight loss, dieting, the “perfect” body, and other various body shaming messages every day. 

Discuss how heavily Photoshopped images are not realistic and recommend body positive accounts to your child. It is important to know what your child is watching, who they are following, and what their online social media presence is. 

Lunchtime

Given that eating is often the highest-anxiety situation for people with eating disorders, it is important to plan for the triggers that commonly appear during school lunches and snacks. Individuals with eating disorders or in recovery may experience stress and anxiety about eating in public, for example. In an attempt to manage these feelings, students may restrict food or eat in secret.

Packing lunch with your child can help them plan for lunchtime activities and help them gain confidence. If it is helpful for your child, having a conversation before the day’s meals may also alleviate the pressure of food. Keep to the meal plan set out for your child and encourage that meal plan. This is a very important step in the recovery process.

Balancing school and recovery

Recovery is a long process and will take time. So often, society thinks that mental disorders are a choice and can easily be dealt with by “getting over it.” We know this is not the case. Take time to help your child recover. It will never be an overnight recovery. 

Your child’s recovery cannot wait–their health must come first. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their education has to completely stop. The Emily Program has locations, such as the Anna Westin House for Adolescents, that allow students to continue their education while going to treatment. 

How to support your child in eating disorder recovery

While the return to school may be particularly challenging for those with eating disorders, the transition can be made smoother with appropriate planning and support. Here are some tips for parents to keep in mind:

Set a good example. If you are constantly talking about weight or dieting, or comparing yourself to others, your child will see that. Make body positive remarks, don’t put anyone down, and make an effort to model body positivity or body neutrality for everyone. 

Stay non-confrontational, non-judgmental, and supportive. Use “I” statements when you talk to your child about any eating disorder-related concerns. Allow for a private space for them to talk openly about their eating disorders. Applaud their victories, no matter the size.

Enjoy family activities that do not revolve around food. Find ways to connect with your child that are not food-centric. A game night, gentle walks, or evening at a local park, for example, are ways to connect in a more comfortable setting for a person with an eating disorder.

Know the signs of an eating disorder. Signs that a student may be struggling with an eating disorder include poor performance on coursework, unrealistically high expectations, procrastination, difficulty concentrating, or withdrawal from social or favorite activities.

Some other common signs of eating disorders include:

  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dieting, skipping meals, or following strict food rules
  • Excessive exercise
  • Frequent comments about food or eating
  • Constant self-criticism
  • Body image concerns
  • Sadness or other mood changes
  • Perfectionistic attitude
  • Using food to manage emotions or “numb out”
  • Isolation and mood changes

Involve professional support. Eating disorders require multidisciplinary care from a team knowledgeable about the complexity and severity of these illnesses. Dietitians, therapists, psychiatrists, and nutritionists, all play a role in helping treat an eating disorder. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from healthcare professionals specializing in eating disorders. Parents are very important to their child’s recovery and giving support to your child will be very beneficial to their recovery. Encourage your child to go at their own pace and ask for help when it’s needed. Eating disorders are not and will never be a choice. No one needs to go through an eating disorder alone. 

If your child is returning to school with an eating disorder and looking for support, reach out to us at 1-888-364-5977. Here are some tips on how to show positivity and good body image for your child.

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