National Eating Disorders Association

‘Parent Talk’: Tips on How to Parent a Child Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Lorri Benson, PFN Steering Committee

One of the things I found most difficult during my daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder was how to fulfill my role as a parent even when the experts’ advice ran completely counter to my instincts. I would feel like some of my daughter’s behavior demanded consequences, yet her therapist would tell me to let him handle it, and/or to remember that she was punishing herself in so many ways and didn’t need more punishment. I felt at odds letting her get away with behaviors that I wouldn’t let my other children do without consequences.

That being said, here are seven suggestions I came across on my journey as a parent of someone struggling with an eating disorder: 

1.  Listen to both your gut and what the experts say, and then thoughtfully consult your gut again.

Every case is different and you know your child in ways others cannot. But remember that this is something that has a hold on your child, and something you don’t completely understand, so consult those who are helping your child and carefully consider their advice.

It is a stressful balancing act between 1) seeking to have boundaries and normal parental checks and balances, and 2) not wanting to damage your child’s already fragile self-esteem. 

2.  Although challenging, try to keep honest lines of communication open and ongoing as much as you can.

Tell your child that this is new territory for you as well, and that you are only doing the best job you can. While talking to your loved one, it’s important to trust and be respectful but ever watchful.  Also, remember to be extremely thoughtful and sensitive about language; it is important for everyone in the family to be aware of the words they use and how they may be interpreted.

3.  Always keep your child from harm, even if it goes against the advice you’ve been given.

Sometimes, you have to put your foot down. If the behaviors go against every rule of your house, (i.e. skipping curfew, cursing, sneaking out, being disrespectful, etc.) you must quietly, firmly and lovingly separate the ED from these other behaviors and try to keep order in the house.

Especially when there are other children present, your child must be reminded that this is a family house with family rules that still apply to her/him. 

4.  Turn to your spouse for support and be a team when it comes to parenting.

This is so important and both parents, even if divorced, need to know that they need to be a team during this tough time.

5.  Remember that you can only do the best you can.

You may make mistakes, but you are in unchartered territory, and you are not expected to know all the answers. The child you parented before the eating disorder is both the same AND a different child. Remind yourself that being unsure as a parent comes with the territory.

6.  Be kind to yourself. You ARE doing the best job you can. Consult your own therapist to help YOU through this time.

I hope these tips serve you well as you carve your own path as a parent through this time of struggle. 

A great resource for those with loved ones suffering from eating disorders is the Parent, Family & Friends Network (PFN). The PFN supports families and friends of those suffering from eating disorders by providing personal connection, information and resources that fit each member’s needs. You can join the network for free. As a member, you will receive emails about particular eating disorders programs and other eating disorder materials of interest. Also, be sure to take a look at our Parent Toolkit for answers to your insurance questions; signs, symptoms and medical consequences; information about treatment and levels of care; and questions to ask when choosing a treatment provider. 

About the Author: A member of NEDA's Parent, Family & Friends Network (PFN) steering committee, Lorri Antosz Benson is an award winning television producer, writer, former syndicated columnist, and author. Benson co-wrote Distorted - How A Mother and Daughter Unraveled the Truth, the Lies and the Realities of an Eating Disorder, with her daughter Taryn. The book deals with Taryn’s struggle with an eating disorder, and the effect on the family. Her new book, To Have And Not To Hold, tells Lorri's story as a birthmother, and is the first in a series of three books for those involved in adoption. Lorri’s work has led her to become a family advocate, and a speaker/expert on eating disorders, adoption and resources for parents. Learn more at