Health & Safety

How can I talk to my student about eating disorders?

By Karen Jashinsky

(This is the second in a series of three articles. If you would like to know more about the warning signs of eating disorders, or what treatment options are available, please follow the links.)

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.”

Find information about signs of eating disorders here, or find out about some of the different treatment options.


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.



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