It’s that time of year again…time for fresh notebooks, new clothes, and early mornings. School is back in session, and for most people, this brings both comfort and stress. For those who have a child in eating disorder treatment, school does not just mean meeting new teachers and helping with more homework. School is an additional aspect of eating disorder treatment, often leading to a number of questions: Where will my child eat? How can I be sure that my child is sticking to their meal plan? How will my child handle the increase in stress that homework and exams often bring? The following are some tips for adjusting to the transition from summer to fall:
Create a Clear Supervision Plan As a parent, you may have been largely responsible for providing supervision around your child’s meals and snacks over the summer. As the school year begins, this begins to shift, as your child may be in school for at least six hours a day. Perhaps your child is at a place in recovery where they are ready to eat in the cafeteria with the support of their friends, in which case it is important to be clear about expectations regarding weight and compliance. On the other hand, many eating disorder patients identify the cafeteria as a stressful place, as they have to take recovery and compliance into their own hands. This can be quite challenging when the eating disorder voice is telling them to use their ED behaviors. Ask for assistance from school officials to create a plan that will keep your child safe – many students with health concerns, such as an eating disorder, eat in the nurse or guidance office, and can often bring a friend for added support. Remember that with eating disorders, food is medicine, and regular supervision is often the best way to ensure your child is able to be 100% compliant. As needed, discuss other supervision plans with school staff – Would you like to receive an email or phone call if your child is unable to complete their meal? Could your child receive special permission to eat their snack in class? What should be done about bathroom use? Additionally, it is important to be mindful of physical activity you may not have previously considered “exercise” (walking home from school, walking to class with a book bag, etc.), as this can have a significant impact on a malnourished body. Consult with your child’s doctor and providers if you need assistance with addressing these questions or coordinating this care.
Develop a Coping Regimen & Practice Self-Care For many people, eating disorder behaviors have been a long-standing coping technique, and using other skills can seem difficult. Over time, however, new coping skills often become the new normal, and will help your child to cope in a healthier way. Creating a ‘distress tolerance’ box may help provide easy access to these skills. Help your adolescent fill a box with activities that are self-soothing – a good book, inspirational quotes, nail polish, photographs, a mandala, a stress ball, etc. to use during challenging moments both at school and home.
While studying for a test or writing a research paper, people tend to follow the belief that they don’t have time for anything else. While transition times certainly require more focus on specific tasks, such as homework, self-care is as important as ever. Encourage your child to do one thing every day that leads to positive emotions – an outdoor walk (if approved by medical doctors), spending time with a good friend, family member, or pet, watching their favorite show while curled up with a cup of tea, or whatever it is that gives them a TIME OUT from the hustle and bustle of a busy day. This goes for parents as well – eating disorder treatment can be challenging for everyone, so self-care is key.
Stay Goal-Oriented Although the transition from free summer days to studying and homework can be rough, many adolescents identify school as a motivator for recovery. School provides a routine, a social outlet, and hope for the future. It is often associated with sports or extra-curricular activities, which are also frequently cited as motivators for recovery. Help your child stay focused on their goals – what does recovery mean to them? If the goal is to stay in school and remain out of intensive eating disorder treatment, talk with your child about how to get through meals and snacks during times of increased stress. If the goal is to begin a sport when weight and/or behaviors have become stabilized, help your child focus on ways in which they can provide their body with the energy it needs to achieve this goal. Some people benefit from creating a vision board, or from carrying around a list of their goals that they can easily access during difficult times.
Eating disorder treatment presents numerous challenges – school being one of them. By providing supervision, increasing coping skills, and practicing self-care, you and your child may find yourselves entering this transition time feeling empowered and confident.
About the author:
Erika Vargas, MA, is the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program Clinician at the Braintree location. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.