National Eating Disorders Association

Many of those with eating disorders are ambivalent about recovery. They may not believe there is a problem or that the problem is serious. The thought of not engaging in eating disordered behaviors is often tremendously anxiety-provoking, which can also lead someone to turn away from treatment. Regardless of why, it is important to encourage your loved one to seek appropriate treatment, since an eating disorder can be fatal.

Identify your leverage

Many young adults still rely on their parents for financial and other types of support. Some parents have found that requiring their child to engage in treatment as a condition for certain types of support (car, cell phone, housing, paying for college) has been enough to convince the sufferer to seek help. Other parents and loved ones use different tactics, including seeking professional help for their own well-being. You will know which approach will work best for your loved one and your situation.

The expectation that they will receive treatment and recover from their disorder is powerful medicine for a sufferer. Oftentimes, a person with an eating disorder stops believing that recovery is possible. Having supportive friends and family who believe that for them can be a very strong message.

When leverage isn’t enough

Sometimes, a loved one is financially independent. Other times, leverage simply isn’t effective. Although the parents of minors can often seek treatment on behalf of their child, it becomes exponentially more difficult to require a loved one to seek care once they have turned 18 and have the legal authority to refuse treatment. Although your options are substantially more limited if your loved one is over 18 and refusing treatment, you have several legal options you can pursue. These options are generally exercised as a last resort, but can be effective and potentially life-saving.


Seeking medical guardianship gives you the legal authority to make decisions about a person’s physical and psychological care. It doesn’t allow you to sign an adult into a treatment program, but it does allow you to be closely involved in the decision-making process. To be granted, a judge must decide that a person isn’t capable of making these decisions on his or her own.

To obtain guardianship, you will need to seek a court order. As laws, definitions, and regulations vary by state, contact a family law attorney in your state for more guidance.


Conservatorship gives you the authority to manage another person’s finances. It can be useful in eating disorders to reduce access to funds that are fueling the disorder and allowing a seriously ill individual to go untreated. There may also be other circumstances in which conservatorship is warranted. To be granted, a judge must decide that a person isn’t capable of making these decisions on his or her own.

To obtain conservatorship, you will need to seek a court order. As laws, definitions, and regulations vary by state, contact a family law attorney in your state for more guidance.

Note: both conservatorship and guardianship are governed under state law, and only effective in the particular state where it is granted. If your loved one seeks care in a different state, the guardianship or conservatorship doesn’t automatically transfer, and you may need to seek additional legal advice and court orders in this situation.

Other legal actions

  • “72-hour hold” or an emergency hold can be given if a person is deemed an immediate danger to themselves or others. This gives a hospital the order to hold and treat a person until a judge can evaluate the patient’s status and what should happen next. This must occur within 72 hours.
  • Longer-term holds are granted after an initial hearing in which a person is found incompetent to make their own medical decisions due to their current mental or physical state. An individual can be transferred to a county or state facility to receive treatment for a certain period of time, after which their case must be reviewed.

At these hearings, your loved one with an eating disorder will be granted an attorney to represent their cause and help look out for their best interests.

The definition of incapacitated and non-competent will vary from area to area and judge to judge. Although these orders are granted for individuals with eating disorders, they can be difficult to obtain, especially since some eating disordered individuals genuinely do not believe there is a problem. This can convince some judges that the person is fine. For all of these types of actions, the advice of lawyers and of the medical community is paramount to a successful outcome.

Often, knowing that a loved one is able and willing to require treatment is enough to get the eating disordered person to back down and enter treatment themselves. Studies have shown that many eating disorder sufferers who felt coerced into treatment ultimately acknowledged that the treatment was necessary and life-saving.

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