“My Daughter Won’t Eat!”

So, its dinner time and you’ve been logging in hours at the stove preparing what you thought was your daughter’s favorite meal; mashed potatoes, steak, and green beans. She has always loved this meal. Ever since she was very young, her favorite food has been mashed potatoes. But this night is different, just like most of the nights the past two months. Sally, 13 years old, won’t eat. You pray and hope each night will be better. Just maybe she will have a few more bites than the night before. Sally sits down to eat and oh, no. She isn’t eating, again. She slowly moves her green beans around on the plate, pretends to take bites, and gulps down her water, filling herself up with liquid instead. This is your life lately and you have no idea what to do.

I get it. A very large portion of my clients is struggling with disordered eating and/or body image. This is extremely common for the age group 10-30 years old, unfortunately. The example above is all too close to home for the girls I work with. Struggling to eat, standing in front on their mirror feeling like nothing fits them, and refusing to eat at school because they are afraid others will judge them or because, ‘I am just not hungry.’ For parents, this is a nightmare.

Quite frankly, if your child or teen is struggling to eat, not eating, refusing to eat, and/or losing weight or engaging in excessive measures to lose weight, it’s time to seek professional help. I strongly recommend an inpatient treatment center if deemed appropriate for their level of care, a therapist, registered dietician, and/or psychiatrist and doctor. All of these people make up what is referred to as a ‘treatment team.’ This ‘team’ helps to make sure that your teen is getting the best care and recovery possible.

Tip # 1: Stop Beating Yourself Up. It’s hard being a parent of a child with an eating disorder (ED). Period. I often hear my client’s parents blaming themselves or looking for reasons why their child has disordered eating and constantly beating themselves up with ‘why’ or ‘I should have done…’ You did nothing to create this. ED’s are sneaky, powerful, and manipulative. They can pop up seemingly randomly, out of the blue, unexpectedly. You did nothing to create this. You are doing the best you can. It’s extremely hard to know what exactly to say, do, or ways to help, in fear of making your teen upset, mad at you, or even more uncomfortable. Your teen doesn’t want this either. It’s important to show yourself love and compassion the same way you want your teen to show themselves love and compassion.

Tip #2 : Don’t Ever Say “Just Eat It.” While ED’s can be confusing and frustrating, the last thing you ever want to tell your teen is ‘Just eat it.’ Never, ever, ever, please never, say this to your teen. Your teen desperately wants to be better. They hate this daily battle. They wish so badly that they could just eat the dinner. ED is yelling at them in their ear statements like, ‘you’re fat’ and ‘if you eat that, no one will like you.’ These are words they hear all day everyday when trying to eat. Telling them ‘just eat it’ is extremely painful and angering for them to hear. They wish they could eat it, just like you!

Tip # 3: During recovery, never comment on the changes in your teen’s body. Recovery can be a long, hard, and painful road. But it is absolutely possible and real. Recovery does exist! Be patient with yourself and your teen. Be a role model for them. Say nice things about yourself when you look in the mirror, show good self-esteem, and model confidence. Once your teen begins to show signs of recovery and is doing better, another comment to avoid is ‘You look so healthy!’ They are absolutely not ready to hear that their body is changing. This is their number one fear. The one thing they dread the most is their body changing in recovery. Avoid making any comments about their body, appearance, weight, shape, or size. Really maximize and talk about their qualities that have nothing to do with weight. Have you noticed that they overall just seem happier? Point this out! But, please don’t comment that they look healthier. To individuals with ED’s, ‘healthier’ can mean ‘gained weight.’ While this may be true, that they have gained weight, this is not appropriate to be pointing out.

I know this is hard, draining, and heartbreaking to watch and experience, just know that it does get better and yes, you can help. Simply being there for your teen does wonders. Listen, let them vent, and just be a shoulder to cry on. Try not to give too much advice or appear bossy. Their treatment team knows what they’re doing and is there to help guide the way. Just be a mom or dad and show your teen you love them and care.

About the Author

Marianne Riley, LGPC Marianne Riley is a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. Marianne work’s with a range of different issues, but specializes in body image, self-esteem, eating disorders, ADHD, anxiety and depression.

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