Preventing Eating Disorders – A Parent’s Guide

Family of all ages around the dinner table to show preventing of eating disorders.

The dinner table is a positive place to connect families and start a dialogue.

At Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders (Sanford CTED), we work directly with pediatricians to individualize care for our clients under 18. If our young clients have not visited their pediatrician, we refer them for an assessment and recommendation. We do this to complete their lab work and request an EKG and a full physical.


Prevention and Early Intervention

When a pediatrician diagnoses an adolescent or child with an eating disorder, we know that the sooner we treat them, the better their chances of lifetime recovery.  So, we must look at prevention and early intervention. Prevention has always been my top goal, and at Sanford CTED, we prioritize parental education and prevention with presentations in the community we serve and family therapy. We encourage parents to look at their beliefs around nourishing their bodies and offer a practical guide.


Our children are growing up in a post-pandemic environment where they are required to learn at a fast pace through technology. Schools are performance-based and competitive, and eating disorders are about competing and comparing. Our children’s brains and bodies are developing. How are we helping them to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression?


We can start today to prevent eating disorders by modeling our healthy relationship with food. We can also provide a wide variety of food, when possible, and start the conversation with our children. Instead of talking about calories or what foods are “good” or “bad,” we can discuss nourishing our bodies and enjoying food for that purpose. Food brings us together: our families, culture, and communities. So, the dinner table is a positive way to bring families together to connect and talk.


scted long bedroom + kitchen

Sanford CTED residential bedrooms and the clinical kitchen.

Preventing Eating Disorders – A Parent’s Guide

The following basic guidelines can go a long way toward preventing eating disorders and building a healthy relationship with food in the household. Family member involvement is also vital to eating disorder recovery. At Sanford CTED, we do not want family members to feel guilty or regimented. We ask parents and caregivers to look honestly at their habits and upbringing and accept themselves for who they are.


Creating a safe environment

Begin by providing a safe environment to discuss feelings, body image, and pressures at school or among your children’s friends. Create open communication about your child’s self-esteem in a space where they will not feel judged.


Diet culture

It is vital as caregivers to embrace our healthy body image. We must also practice mindful eating habits, avoid dieting or extreme diets, and avoid disparaging comments about our own bodies or appearance. When our loved ones hear us saying negative things about ourselves, they judge themselves by the same ideals.



Restricting Food

Do you restrict yourself from certain foods in front of the children? Do you deny certain foods from your children? As a parent, we do not want our children to eat non-nutritious foods all the time, but portraying food as off-limits develops thought patterns in young minds. For a balanced diet, allow your children to have “fun foods” like pizza on a Friday night and birthday cake at parties. The key is enjoyment and presenting a variety of food.


Categorizing Food as “Good” or “Bad”

At an early age, we are told that sugar is “bad” and fruit and whole grains are “good.” Conversely, at Sanford CTED, we ingrain the idea that all foods can fit. Food is fuel for our bodies but is meant to bring pleasure and joy. Moderation, a healthy relationship with food, and providing a wide variety can satisfy a parent’s desire to provide proper nutrition for their child’s growing body. If your child loves pizza, you can find a way to include them in making pizza together. It is a fun activity, and you can offer a selection of vegetable toppings that satisfies both your needs.


Movement for Joy!

We ask you to take the time to reevaluate your feelings and thoughts about moving your body. Do you exercise to burn calories or for the joy of it? Try walking in nature with family, friends, or solo to connect the mind, body, and spirit. At Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders, we use recreational therapy to help our clients reintegrate into life with the most enjoyment. At home, you can promote physical activity for pleasure rather than performance.


Social Media and TV

Another way of preventing eating disorders is to educate our children about the influence of social media and TV advertisements. We must help them distinguish between a fictional portrayal and what real-life diversity is all about. One of the most important things we can do is encourage our youth to use critical thinking to question beauty ideals. What is their definition of attractiveness? Why should there be an ideal? We know that eating disorders do not begin with food. Indeed, eating disorders start with thinking and feeling.


When we help our children decide about their values and what they find “beautiful” in the world, we can also help them determine that what they see on social media is not that important to them.


Book on eating disorders

Recommended reading – Dr. Siegel also has YouTube videos that address ADHD, depression, anxiety, and learning and behavioral issues in children.


Warning Signs

If you are worried about your child developing an eating disorder, you are probably seeing warning signs. It is important to pay attention and be vigilant if you sense that something is wrong with your child’s eating behaviors. Weight loss, obsession with food or body image, skipping meals, and excessive exercise are all red flags. You can develop a comfortable relationship with your child’s pediatrician and have an open discussion if you have concerns. At Sanford CTED, we work with our client’s families to create a recovery-conducive home. If family members are exploring options, we provide resources and tips to open the dialogue with children and their pediatrician.


Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy is an evidence-based modality that helps clients identify their core values. When our clients determine their core values (starting with five and increasing to 10), they realize, “This is who I am. What is important to me has nothing to do with what I look like.” Their values determine and catapult their daily intention for what they want to accomplish in treatment and beyond.


At Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders, self-acceptance and diversity are the foundation of our program. We incorporate diversity in all our groups (e.g., Body Diversity, Food and Feelings, and Social Media). Diversity is also depicted on posters in the treatment center. We teach our clients to honor diversity in all aspects of a person, including body size.


We recommend The National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA)  comprehensive Parent Toolkit!


In conclusion, we can figure this out together and find a way to help ourselves and our children take the pressure off. We must change the collective idea that you have to look a certain way to be attractive. The fact is, we were all meant to look different. Our children are watching us, and what we do is more important than what we say. Showing our children what self-acceptance looks like will make them less likely to search outside themselves to feel loved, safe, and able to learn.


Lori Kehoe holds a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She also has eight years of experience working in eating disorder residential treatment in various positions, including leadership roles across the continuum of care. She Clinical Liaison for Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders.