One example of the ever-changing nature of an eating disorder would be when a person starts with restricting calories then moves into purging food. Once the person realizes they can eliminate their calories while still consuming food, they may turn to purging calories with laxatives or vomiting. This could take a few years, and it is often the reason eating disorders seem to “sneak” up on family members and loved ones.

Parents often say that the eating disorder just showed up one day when, “all of a sudden my loved one was very sick and had an eating disorder.” The progressive nature of an eating disorder is subtle and easy to attribute to developmental expectations or adolescent quirks. Some of the natural personality tendencies are enhanced. It is easy enough to hide calorie consumption for fairly long periods of time, through meal-time manipulation, clothing selection and food avoidance. Parents seem quickly to notice the activities associated with binging or purging of foods.

Parents may not think much about a child who is an introvert staying in their room longer, or a child who tends towards dark humor becoming more interested in vampire books, or a child who is interested in cooking now reads recipe books yet never eats the recipes.

And while the eating disorder is evolving, it makes sense that the personality of the child is also changing. Perhaps the child’s demeanor has become edgier, angrier or confrontational. This can be intimidating for parents who wonder how to help, but instead take the high road in hopes of it “going away.”

So, if an eating disorder is progressive, it seems possible to encourage the good side of the developing habits that may turn from disordered eating into an eating disorder. Could it be that parents and loved ones can forge the positive side of these interests so they can become more involved with family and friends rather than feeling like an outsider?

Certainly it is not the parents fault if a loved one is developing an eating disorder, nor does this suggest an eating disorder is “stopped” by looking at the positive side of new habits, but it seems that we, as loved ones, can make subtle interventions along the way. This may encourage a progression into health rather than a disorder.

Here is a list of ways to incorporate interests that later improve the eating disorder:

  • Encourage social time with the family
  • Find the time for one on one with a loved one
  • Allow for alone time but encourage quiet time around the family
  • Read recipes together
  • Shop for meals together
  • Cook new meals together
  • Create old favorite meals together
  • Create a schedule in the house so meals and activities are predictable
  • Take leisure walks together, maybe in the park and with the dog
  • Go clothes shopping together, encourage positive body image
  • Attend your child’s sports activities
  • Learn about their favorite subjects at school
  • Offer help for subjects that are hard for them
  • Go to church together
  • Offer to take them to appointments
  • Help with ideas for proms, homecoming or questions about dating
  • Recognizing increased negative changes in their child’s demeanor or habits.

Parents may feel overwhelmed by all their responsibilities in life, and their loved one may say they are fine; however, it is important to remain open to “gut” instincts and to continue an open dialogue concerning how their loved one is “progressing.” An eating disorder is not “contagious” so the parent does not necessarily make it worse by talking with their loved one about it. Remain open, curious and supportive all while looking to outside professionals if you find too many indicators of an eating disorder.

About the Author

Libby Neal, MA, LPC, is in private practice on the western slope of Colorado. Specializing in eating disorders and trauma, Libby utilizes psychodynamic therapy, evidence-based practices, equine assisted therapy and art therapy. Libby has fifteen years of experience with eating disorders working as a clinician, administrator and educator.