What to Say When Your Teen has an Eating Disorder

By Andrea Kent, MPH, RD, CNSC – Associate Dietitian at Nutrition Instincts – San Diego Nutrition Therapy

Learning that your teen has an eating disorder can be a very difficult thing for a parent to hear.  Oftentimes a parent doesn’t know what the next steps should be. In addition to finding support outside of the home, supporting your teen at home in a helpful way can be just as important as the help you seek from professionals.  This brings you to the question of what should I say and what should I avoid when talking to my teen about their eating disorder?

Things to say or do when your teen has an eating disorder:

  • “This is not your fault.  I am proud of you for letting me know that you need help.”
  • “This will take time, please give yourself “grace” and remember this is about the overall journey. It’s ok to have better days and more challenging days.”
  • Have meals and snacks with your teen. Try  to model balanced meals.  
  • When having family meals, keep the conversation neutral, light and on non-food topics.  If your teen has difficulty after meals, aim to offer support and comforting activities. Consider sitting down together to watch a show or movie, playing a board game or doing an art project.
  • Plan regular mealtime and balanced meals based on the recommendation of your teen’s dietitian.  Prioritize going to the grocery store regularly. 
  • If comfortable and recommended by their dietitian, include your teen in meal planning and cooking. 
  • Make plans for enjoyable activities that are not centered on food or body image (safe movies, museums, outdoor activities if appropriate).
  • Giving praise to your teen or others that is not based on physical appearance- “Wow that was such a creative idea”, “Thank you for being so helpful with the laundry”.

What to avoid saying when your teen has an eating disorder:

  • Commenting directly on anyone’s physical appearance or body shape (teens, yourself or others). Even with good intentions this can be interpreted negatively by your teen.
  • Focusing on and expressing your own body dissatisfaction around your teen.
  • Calling foods unhealthy or healthy, clean or dirty, or any other kind of food labeling. Read more about how to model a healthy relationship with food here.
  • Stating that your teen looks healthier or energized.  Your teen may not be ready for this kind of feedback and could interpret in a way rooted in their eating disorder thoughts.
  • You ate so much today, do you feel better?  Commenting on the amount your teen has eaten can also result in anxiety.
  • If doing blind weights, any kind of positive or negative feedback.  

It may seem very overwhelming in the beginning to know what to say and not to say to support your teen.  Giving yourself grace and seeking support from your teen’s healthcare providers can help in navigating this new road.  Overall, solely continuing to be there to support your teen during the journey of recovery is the most important role you can play!

Please note: This information is intended for educational purposes only and should never replace medical or therapeutic advice from your doctor, dietitian, therapist or any other health professional.

Andrea Kent, is a registered dietitian at Nutrition Instincts who focuses on bridging the gap between evidence-based nutrition and what that means for her clients in their daily lives. As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Certified Nutrition Support Clinician, she aims to help each of her clients navigate a sustainable way to find peace with their nutrition choices and body freedom. Whether this is working with clients in recovery from an eating disorder, younger adolescents and their families, or exploring Intuitive Eating more in-depth- Andrea makes sure to support each client with an individualized and flexible approach in their journey. Interested in working with Andrea? Apply today!