“Dear KJ” is a monthly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin “KJ” Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20, The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR‘s “Tell Me More,” and “On Air with Ryan Seacrest,” among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.
How can I open a conversation with my parents about getting treatment?
First, congratulations on deciding to take this important step in your recovery. It can be nerve-wracking to talk to your parents about getting treatment for an eating disorder. It’s difficult to tell parents about something personal, especially if it’s something you’ve been hiding from them, but your physical and emotional health must be the priority. Every family is different, so there’s no one perfect script that will work in every instance, but here are some ideas to get you started.
First, I suggest you do some journaling to collect your thoughts. What sorts of symptoms are you experiencing? How are these symptoms making you feel? What are you hoping to get out of the conversation with your parents? Do you want to see a therapist? Do you want to see your regular doctor? (Both are a good idea!) Writing down a short list of talking points will help you remember everything, and it will help you get back on track if the conversation takes off in a different direction.
Before speaking with your parents, I recommend taking the NEDA Online Eating Disorders Screening. This quiz can help you develop a stronger sense of what’s going on, and sharing the results of the quiz with your parents is a great way to start the conversation. The results of the quiz may help your parents better understand what you’re experiencing, and they will also see that you’re taking this seriously. Once you’ve described your symptoms, it’s important to mention what kind of help you need, such as “I think I need to go to an eating disorders specialist” or “I’d really like to see my doctor about this.”
With luck, your parents will already be familiar with mental health concerns, including eating disorders, and will be comfortable helping you seek treatment. However, if your parents are less familiar or comfortable with mental health issues and treatment options, I suggest directing them to the Parent Toolkit on the NEDA website.
In my experience, almost all parents want to be supportive and are willing to learn about eating disorders to help their child. However, if you’re worried about how your parents will react, definitely tell them this in advance, and ask them to focus on being good listeners. If talking to them in person is too overwhelming, try writing them a letter instead. Hopefully, reaching out to your parents will leave you feeling more supported. However, parents aren’t perfect and some are downright dysfunctional.
Therefore, if talking to your parents isn’t an option (or if you speak with them and it goes poorly), there are other sources of support available to you, such as a doctor or school counselor. For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.
If you are thinking about suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line.
Having big, serious conversations with your parents is never fun or easy, but seeking support from the adults in your life is a crucial step to getting healthy. I wish you the best of luck with it.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Proud2Bme.org, NEDA’s website for teens and young adults.