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How do I help my child with an eating disorder?


June 7, 2023 Parent-Child Relationship Mental Health


Par Karine Pendleton

Psychosocial worker

The risk of developing an eating disorder is highest between the ages of 14 and 25. The search for identity, puberty, concern for appearance, exposure to unrealistic and unattainable beauty models, and peer comparison are some of the factors that may contribute to the development of body dissatisfaction during this period.   

As a parent, dealing with your child's eating disorder on a daily basis can be extremely difficult. You may feel helpless, frustrated, ill-equipped, sad, etc. All of these emotions are valid. An eating disorder often becomes very overwhelming for those closest to the child.  

Having the right strategies on hand is essential to help your child through the ups and downs of the illness. In this article, we will provide you with a number of resources and concrete ways to support your child.  

Always keep in mind that recovery is not a linear process

An eating disorder takes a long time to develop and take hold. The recovery process will also take time. So, we need to be patient, and celebrate every little step our teen takes.  

For example, if they manage to text an eating disorder counsellor instead of throwing up after a meal, that's amazing! It demonstrates that the person who is struggling, who wants to get out of it, is alive and well. In short, it is important to constantly celebrate all the progress in the right direction.

Accept the setbacks!

Addressing eating issues cannot be done by dismissing the relapses that will occur on the road to recovery. It is important not to get angry with your child or even project your feelings of helplessness onto them at this stage of the process. It is perfectly normal to experience relapses.  

Think of a child learning to ride a bike for the first time. They will fall, get up again, and with perseverance and encouragement from family and friends, they will eventually succeed. It's the same principle with eating disorders. The relapse often becomes a moment to stop and question ourselves, to do some introspection.  

"What is going on inside of me right now, what am I experiencing or feeling that could explain this more difficult moment? Are the goals I have set for myself unrealistic? Is it going too fast?" In short, normalizing and accepting the relapse is essential.  

Avoid conversations about weight, appearance and diet  

For example, talking about our child's physical appearance may exacerbate their obsessions. Also, talking about what our child eats (or doesn't eat) may be seen as an attempt to control or monitor, and may make them less likely to open up to you about their difficulties. However, this does not mean that we should not share our concerns with them.  

Using non-violent communication is a good way to do this. The principle is quite simple: we express ourselves by speaking in "I", describing what worries us and how the situation makes us feel.  

For example: "I'd like to talk to you for a moment about a situation that has been bothering me lately. I've noticed that you've become more isolated, less likely to see your friends, and that school has become a challenge for you. This is what you told me last week. Tell me, how are you doing right now? What can I do to help you? Don't forget that I love you, that I'm here for you, without judgment." 

Explain to your child that they did not choose to be sick

Reducing the guilt and shame that too often plague people with eating disorders is crucial. There is still a certain stigma surrounding eating disorders. Many think it is a whim, or a misguided way to get attention. 

Dissociating your child from the disease is very important. "You are not anorexic, you have an eating disorder, but the disease does not define you. You have strengths, dreams, goals, values, skills, etc."  

Helping your child think beyond the eating disorder may even help give them back power over their lives, to regain their identity.  

Continue to maintain your relationship with your child

Your child may become increasingly withdrawn and isolated during the course of the illness. You need to be gentle, caring, patient and persistent. One way to maintain a relationship with your child is to offer family activities that are not food-related. 

Take care of yourself!

It is important not to forget yourself as a parent, a friend or a family member. Too many caregivers end up burning out. Set your limits, clearly define your role and increase your knowledge on the subject. Refer to the treatment team if necessary, and don't be afraid to ask questions.  

You will need all your strength and energy. Despite your family member's suffering, make sure you take time to do things that make you feel good: spending time with your spouse, going out once in a while with friends, joining a support group to help break the isolation, etc.  


Don't hesitate to reach out to ANEB! Anorexia and Bulimia Quebec is an organization that offers support to people affected by eating disorders. Through their hotline, support groups, or via chat or text message, the counsellors are there to listen to you, without judgment and free of charge (or at a low cost).  

A list of resources (psychologists, nutritionists, multidisciplinary clinics) is also available on the ANEB website. 

Website: anebquebec.com  (for adults) and anebados.com  (for youth) 

Ressource (in french)

ANEB Québec, Aider un proche
Tel-Jeunes, La communication non violente
Institut universitaire en santé mentale Douglas, Troubles de l'alimentation : conseils pour la famille