Anorexia nervosa is an uncommon condition in teenagers, particularly teenage girls, but it causes enormous stress and concern, and for obvious reasons. In a daughter who has moderate to severe anorexia nervosa, they have lost a significant amount of their weight and their body mass index has dropped significantly. And almost certainly, if it is in that moderate to severe range, they will be seeking professional help.

What’s the most important thing for a parent to do?

So, I think the most important thing you can do as a parent to support someone who has anorexia nervosa is to ensure that they get the right expertise to help them with their disorder, because it’s not the sort of condition, particularly if it goes beyond the mild spectrum into the moderate to severe spectrum, that will go away on its own. Professional help in some way, shape or form, is essential.

And what can you do with your daughter? Well, that actually depends a great deal on what is going on with your daughter. What are the factors that are important in why they’ve developed an eating disorder? What is the nature of their eating disorder? Who are the professional staff involved in it? And ultimately, what is the overall treatment plan that is set up by a professional?

Your role in the treatment plan

So, I’m loathe to say that there are specific things that one can do other than to be a partner and a participant in the treatment plan. And if a treatment plan has been developed by a professional, to ensure that your role is very clearly defined and that you stick to your role. And that role may vary from doing a great deal, such as getting involved with meal preparation, taking your daughter to the doctor, ensure that she’s being weighed in a certain point in time in certain environments. Or it may actually be a more distant role, less involved, and leaving it more into the responsibility with your daughter with the actual professional who’s involved. And some of that depends on the nature of the eating disorder and the dynamics in the relationship between you and other parents, other family members as to what is actually the correct plan.

Finally, though, regardless of all of what I’ve just said, clearly to have empathy to your daughter is critical, clearly understanding that this is, for her, a very stressful time. And finally, to acknowledge that it is both a physical condition, but also a psychological condition. And that empathy and support, in its own way, is very important as part of the overall plan.

Dr Matthew Cullen, Psychiatrist, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney

Last Reviewed: 17/09/2020

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