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Two young girls sit at school desks, working on assignments.
August 24, 2023

How to Support Your Child Returning to School with an Eating Disorder

You’ve braved the back-to-school aisles of your local retailer, reviewed your child’s class and activities schedule, established a transportation plan, and helped select a perfect first-day-of-class outfit. Whether school is already back in session for your family or your household is buzzing with first-day jitters, navigating back to school means working with your child to set them up for a successful school year.

If your child is navigating this school year with an eating disorder, how you define “success” won’t be limited to their academic performance. Rather, success means preserving their recovery during the transition into a new school year.

This season brings to the forefront the influence of body image and eating triggers distinct to the school environment. While it’s not uncommon for eating disorder behaviors to be triggered or worsened by periods of transition, your support and preparation as a parent can make all the difference in ensuring this school year is one that centers your child’s recovery.

Challenges of the Back-to-School Transition

Though the return to school is rarely seamless, it can be particularly difficult when you’re living with an eating disorder. As with all situations and settings that have the potential to trigger eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, planning ahead is the best way to help your child stay on the path of recovery.

Consider the added recovery challenges your child may encounter during the return to school:

  • Academic pressure
  • Adapting to new teachers, schedules, and workloads
  • Social comparison
  • Appearance-based bullying
  • Sports performance pressure
  • Scattered mealtimes with potentially chaotic settings
  • Reduced support and oversight with meals and snacks
  • Peer food comparison
  • Body image distress (possibly compounded by puberty)
  • Diet talk from peers, teachers, and/or coaches
  • Potential eating disorder-related questions from peers about time off, treatment, and/or changes in appearance

Managing Back-to-School Triggers

An eating disorder can complicate your child’s return to school, but it certainly does not make it impossible. Parents and communities of support are the biggest allies in a child’s recovery. Despite the host of challenges that the school setting brings, there are some ways to make the transition smoother and recovery-oriented. In conjunction with the tips below, consider your child’s unique needs. You know them best, including their particular triggers, preferred coping strategies, and personal reasons for recovery.

  • Start the conversation early. As the school year kicks off, initiate a frank conversation with your child about their concerns heading into the year, what self-soothing techniques they can implement, how they would like to be supported, and what support looks like for them during this transition time. This conversation is also a great time to discuss what your child can say to peers if they ask about your child’s illness.
  • Connect with your child’s treatment team. You don’t have to handle this alone. Your child’s care team is here to help you navigate this transition. Ensure they’re kept abreast of challenges and updates related to the start of the school year. Formulate a plan with your child’s team for managing meal times, meal stressors, and how meals can be appropriately supervised.
  • Consider establishing a support person at school. Work with your child to identify an individual who can serve as your child’s point person during the school day–perhaps a teacher, school nurse, or support staff member.
  • Communicate with your child’s teacher. Draft an email to your child’s teacher as the school year begins, outlining your child’s specific recovery-related needs and concerns. Talk to your child’s school about any assignments, classes, or activities they may need to miss due to treatment. Explore accommodations and supervision, as appropriate.
  • Review the signs of an eating disorder. Signs that a student may be struggling with an eating disorder include poor performance on coursework, unrealistically high expectations, procrastination, difficulty concentrating, or withdrawal from social or favorite activities.
  • Double down your efforts to make your home supportive of recovery. Ease your child’s school challenges by reinforcing support and recovery at home. Model flexible and adequate eating and make an effort to avoid conversations about weight, dieting, or negative body image. Allow for a private, non-judgmental space for your child to talk openly about their eating disorder. Enjoy weeknight family activities, finding ways to connect with your child that don’t revolve around food, such as a game night, a gentle walk, or spending an evening at a local park. Applaud schooltime and recovery victories, big and small.

Know that moments of frustration, panic, or overwhelm (as well as an occasional slip-up) are completely understandable as you aid your child in balancing the demands of school with their recovery. Keep communication open with your child, their school contacts, and their treatment team in order to identify your child’s struggles, avoid some of the common pitfalls of recovery, and ultimately strengthen your relationship with your child.

If your child is returning to school with an eating disorder and looking for support, please reach out to us at 1-855-875-5812 or complete our online contact form. For eating disorder educational resources to review and share with your child’s school, click here.