How can I talk to my student about eating disorders?

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By Karen Jashinsky

Barbie, the curvaceous doll that many girls grow up playing with is being accused of being a culprit of helping girls develop eating disorders and low body confidence. A recent article in Time Magazine stated that “there is research to show that Barbie’s inhuman dimensions do affect girls’ body image, but it seems simplistic to blame Barbie alone for something as complicated as the way girls think about their weight.”

Research shows that young girls’ body image is more influenced by their mothers’ attitudes than anything else. As moms, you also know that most students hate to be lectured by their parents. So as a mom (or parent), how can you safely talk to your student about eating disorders without pushing him or her away if you fear he or she might have one?

Show Concern. It is important to understand that most eating disorders have less to do with food than they do with attempts to deal with emotional and stress-related issues. As a parent, you can’t force your student with an eating disorder to change, but you can offer your support and encourage treatment.

Do not comment on how they look. The person is already too aware of his or her body. Even if you are trying to compliment them, comments about weight or appearance only reinforce an obsession with body image and weight.

Communicate. You may be hesitant to say anything out of fear that you’re mistaken, but don’t let these worries keep you from voicing valid concerns. Be calm, supportive, positive and do not be confrontational. Pick a time when you can speak to the person in private, then explain why you’re concerned.

Don’t Wait Too Long. Eating disorders will only get worse without treatment, and the physical and emotional damage can be severe. The sooner you start to help a loved one, the better his or her chances of recovery.

Be Persistent. Don’t give up. It may take some time before your student is willing to open up and admit to having a problem. Your student is technically an adult, so the decision to seek recovery has to come from him or her. But you can help by making it clear that you’ll continue to be there for him or her, with your compassion and support, whenever your student is ready to tackle the problem.

Avoid power struggles about eating. Do not demand that your student change. Do not criticize his or her eating habits. People with eating disorders are trying to be in control.  Trying to trick or force them to eat can make things worse.

There is no right or wrong way to share with them your feelings, but there are certain things you should avoid saying.  Be sympathetic as to what your student is feeling and be sure to convey that in your message. The more you can get them to feel comfortable and safe talking to you, the more likely they will open up and get help.

Graduate student Tamina Zucker, who is an anorexia survivor and a student liaison for the International Association for Eating Disorder Professionals, reminds parents that it may be frustrating trying to communicate your concerns with your student. She suggests that you “remain calm, and show the student you are willing to wait until they are ready to talk.”

What are treatment options are available to help my student recover from an eating disorder?

Once you are able to have an open talk about your concerns and a decision has been made to seek help for your student’s eating disorder, where do you turn?  Who do you talk to?  It can be difficult to know where to go for help, but help is out there.

There are a variety of different treatment options for students. It is important that your approach matches your student’s needs.  Each person is unique and what works for one may not work for another.  The goal of treatment is encouraging your student to shine through while weakening the disorder’s grip on your student.

What are treatment options are available to help my student recover from a eating disorder?

Therapy – Therapy is meant to help people address the issues that underlie their eating disorder by improving their self-esteem and teaching them healthy ways of dealing with stress and emotional issues.  Therapy can be conducted by group, individually or with family.  Family therapy is a good way for the whole family to express how it is affecting them as a unit.  One resource for seeking family-based treatment is visiting www.mausleyparents.org.

Nutritional counseling – Nutritional counseling is designed to help those in recovery with meal plans, dietary goals and maintenance of a healthy weight.  Dieticians or nutritionists can educate students about basic nutrition and the consequences of eating disorders.  You can search for a Registered Dietician who specializes in eating disorders by choosing “search by expertise” and selecting “eating disorders” here.

Support groups – Having feelings of loneliness or shame is common; being around others that can relate can help your student get through difficult times.  A support group is run by people that have dealt with eating disorders and know what your student is going through.  It is a safe network created to share stories, advice, encouragement and coping strategies.  Online support groups can be found at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Residential or in-patient treatment – This is required when there are extreme physical or behavioral issues that requires a doctor’s supervision.  This type of treatment can either be residential or hospital-based.  You can find some in-patient programs through the National Eating Disorder Awareness site.

Support for you as a parent – Dealing with your student’s eating disorder can be difficult and emotionally taxing for you as well. It is important to take care of yourself.  You should make sure to have your own support system in place to help you continue to care for your student.  Support can come from a number of places, whether it be a friend, support group or visiting with a therapist. Having someone to speak with so you can vent and recharge is essential to recovery.

Remember that recovery isn’t easy and takes time.  There are no quick fixes or miracles.  Being patient, staying positive, and providing encouragement will help you and your student navigate this difficult process.

Entrepreneur and personal trainer Karen Jashinsky is the founder of O2 MAX, a nationwide fitness and media company based in Santa Monica, CA. O2 MAX is a revolutionary fitness solution that combines online tools, social media, and real world workouts to provide an adaptable and personalized fitness regimen for students and busy people. Karen received her MBA in Entrepreneurial from USC, and currently teaches the NASM curriculum to aspiring personal trainers. She is the recipient of the first Emerging Female Leader Award by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). In 2007 IHRSA named her one of the 25 most influential young leaders in the fitness industry.