Eating disorders in adolescents: how and when to seek treatment

Category: About Equip
Author: Tana Luo, PhD

Dr. Tana Luo is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. She completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center and has experience working with children, adolescents, and adults across different levels of care. During her fellowship, she received specialized training in treating pediatric eating disorders.

If you suspect your child is struggling with an eating disorder, the path to seeking treatment may feel daunting and filled with uncertainty. I have been an eating disorders clinician at multiple levels of care, ranging from outpatient to day treatment, and I have worked with families just starting treatment for the first time, as well as families who have been in treatment for years. A common thread across most, if not all, parents is the experience of coming to terms with their child’s eating disorder and making the decision to seek help. Many parents can distinctly recall the early days of picking up on red flags of disordered eating in their children and the challenges associated with seeking support from their networks. Parents have frequently described hearing any variation of the following messages from their well-meaning family, friends, and even their child’s medical providers:

  • “Oh, but your child looks so healthy!”
  • “Don’t worry. I’m sure he will grow out of this.”
  • “She looks so great! We should all strive to look like her.”
  • “This is just a phase. It’s completely normal for children to go through this.” 
  • “Just make them eat!”

These types of messages may ultimately leave parents feeling confused, invalidated, and alone. To add to the uncertainty, children and teens with eating disorders may not be aware that they are struggling, a condition referred to as anosognosia. Concerned parents who try to talk to their child about what they’re observing may be met with vehement denial that anything is wrong, an assertion that, in fact, they feel great, and a desire to just be left alone. This is the ploy of an eating disorder trying to protect itself and to throw parents off of its tracks. And unfortunately, eating disorders are highly effective at getting loved ones to question their own intuitions. 

As a result, parents might be left with a slew of questions and unfair expectations of themselves -- Am I overreacting? My child says he’s fine, so am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I used to talk about eating healthy foods...did I bring about my child’s eating disorder? Is my child really sick enough to need treatment? I should be able to help my child on my own. There may also be an immense feeling of shame and an underlying belief that it is the parent who is at fault. 

The bottom line is that parents do not cause eating disorders, and yet, they do have the power to help their children recover. The first step is to trust your intuitions as a parent. Even if there are people around you assuring you that everything is fine, and your child’s eating disorder is doing everything it can to make you question yourself and back down, you know your child better than anyone else possibly could -- If you think something isn’t right, something isn’t right. 

Once parents have decided to pursue treatment, they are often met with a new set of challenges related to identifying appropriate and effective treatment for their child. Parents often describe seeking treatment as feeling like a leap of faith into the unknown, and this process can be accompanied by even more fear and uncertainty. With so many treatment options available, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of which treatment option would be the best fit for your child and family. Parents at this stage may find it helpful to turn to eating disorder resources in various formats, including books, podcasts, online parent groups, and websites. In particular, using resources that detail the latest research on eating disorder treatment may help orient parents to the types of treatment to pursue. 

At Equip, we work collaboratively with families to help them start the process of seeking treatment. Our approach is built on the following:

  • Getting to know your child and family. We understand that each eating disorder and family is different. It is important to us that we get to know YOU.
  • Providing families with information on the different options for treatment, as well as education on eating disorder treatment that is backed by research. Our goal is for families to feel confident in their own knowledge of what is considered to be the gold standard in eating disorders treatment and to be able to make informed decisions about their child’s care.
  • Working collaboratively with your family to determine what the best treatment option is for your family right now.
  • When you are ready to start treatment, we are here to support you and your family. We provide easily accessible wraparound support that focuses on arming your child and your family with the skills needed to recover.

My work as an eating disorders clinician over the years has shown me the power of parental intuition in guiding parents to seek help for their children. Whether you are a parent looking for the next step in treatment for your child or a parent navigating the world of eating disorder treatment for the first time, listen to your instincts, and seek out resources that speak to the latest research on eating disorder treatment. Your experiences as a parent and your knowledge of your child are integral to the processes of accessing resources, starting treatment, and helping your child recover.