In a few weeks, thousands of college students will head back to campus to start fall semester. Whether they’re starting new or returning, it’s an exciting time for many – yet can be quite a stressful time for others.
Studies suggest 10-20 percent of women and 4-10 percent of men in college suffer from an eating disorder. For many, the transition back to school can lead to feelings of vulnerability and fearfulness as they try to navigate this significant life change.
The emotions hold true for parents, too. How is their child responding to their new living situation? Are they using behaviors to cope with their anxiety? Is their eating disorder impacting their studies or relationships? Was sending them back or allowing them to start to school the right decision?
These concerns are normal. But what many parents fail to realize is they can absolutely play an active role in a successful transition to campus – and continue to steer their child towards recovery. Whether down the road or hundreds of miles away, parents will remain an invaluable advocate and support system.
Before the car drives off, you must first conduct an honest assessment. Is your child (and their eating disorder) truly up to the pressures of campus life? Are they medically stable? Is their provider at home okay with a continuation of studies? Will there be a provider nearby? Has your child exhibited an openness and commitment to recovery? If these questions cause hesitation, you might want to reconsider. (Side note – we’re always here to help with that assessment; my email is below)
Provided your child is clear to start or return, here are some tips:
- Plan for regular visits: Face time is key. If they’re attending school nearby, make a plan to visit – or have them come home – once every two weekends. If further, try once or twice per semester. It’s a fine balance, though – you don’t want to be overbearing (visiting every single weekend). You child must eventually learn how to properly navigate the college campus without a watchful eye.
- Work with a college counselor or outpatient team: These services are extremely accessible to students, and in some cases, there are staff right on site who specialize in eating disorders treatment. Work with them to determine what measures should be put into place for your child, whether it’s weekly weigh-ins or vitals. Set up the first appointment before your child leaves home.
- Draft a meal plan: Build off your home environment. Study the on-campus options available to them (you can always reach out to the school), and based off that, work with a dietitian to create a customized meal plan for your child. Make sure components are easily accessible. Creating extra work (requiring them to shop off campus) might stray them off plan.
- Monitor grades: Eating disorders can have a profound impact on studies. Although a grade point average doesn’t solely dictate how your child is doing, it’s often a strong indicator. Keep in mind that not only can a significant dip in grades be a warning sign of something more serious, but also a significant rise in grades. Check with the school to see if ongoing status reports (more frequently than end of the semester grades) are an option. Additionally, keep asking your child what they’re working on, and follow through on the outcomes.
- Designate a peer ambassador: If possible, identify someone on campus – your child’s roommate, close friend or resident advisor – who can provide you with regular, general updates on how your child is faring in general. They don’t need to watch over every meal or follow your child to the bathroom. Don’t hide this from your child either – make it known you’re in contact, why it’s in their best interest and the (non-intrusive) nature of it.
- Most of all, trust them. I can’t stress this enough. Unless they’ve violated it, they deserve your trust. It’s not easy at times, but if your child knows you trust them, your relationship – and what they share with you – can be stronger in the long run.
Remember, college isn’t easy for anyone. Eating disorders like anorexia are not a quick fix and can present daily challenges. Rest assured that taking these steps can help facilitate the most positive experience for your child.
Looking for a head start before your child gets back to campus? We’re here to help.
Emily Slager, M.Ed., LMHC, is director of Walden’s Hickory Drive Clinic. She is responsible for providing clinical, administrative and fiscal oversight as well as development for the clinic. Previously, she was director of residential, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for adolescents and adults at Walden’s Waltham location. In that role, she oversaw all aspects of these programs including administrative, fiscal and clinical management. Formerly, she was a clinician on Walden’s inpatient eating disorder and psychiatric units. Ms. Slager earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College. Her professional interests include the development of eating disorders in athletes and in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Emily can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden Behavioral Care and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment.