Parenting is hard. Parenting a child with an eating disorder is even harder, regardless of their age.

When analyzing the impact of an eating disorder on parents, it’s almost always through the lens of a teen or adolescent parent. In most cases, their child lives at home and that proximity can lend itself to the development of a strong support system. That child may also need to be swayed or influenced to seek treatment, but at the end of the day, parents generally have a lot of influence, transparency and involvement to get them on the proper road to recovery.

For parents of an adult child with an eating disorder, well, it may seem different on the surface. Chances are your child lives more independently, may work full-time or could reside many miles away from you and other key supports. Convincing – and ultimately helping – them to receive treatment can be a more complicated process.

For starters eating disorder treatment models shift when someone reaches the age of 18. Individuals are legally granted the ability to decide whether or not to pursue treatment and if so, the most appropriate level of care.  Unlike younger individuals, adults can simply decline treatment, even when it’s needed.

But like younger individuals, parents of adult children in need of treatment aren’t entirely powerless. If that’s a situation you’re facing, know you can still make a significant and lasting difference.

If your adult child is open to treatment, assisting in the search for the right treatment team is a good place to start. This means finding someone who is not only specialized in eating disorder treatment but eating disorder treatment for adults in particular. Some providers might have limited availability or only treat younger populations, so I’d suggest offering to help your child call around and put together a list of options. Also always ask providers if they accept your child’s insurance – you don’t want to send them down a road of expensive co-pays or bills.

Familiarize yourself with local support groups and other resources, too. They can complement treatment and be an invaluable source of stress relief for someone in the throes of an eating disorder. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) has an excellent online directory.

Once your child finds the right treatment option, don’t stop there. Individuals with eating disorders often feel a certain amount of shame and therefore may be reluctant to “burden” parents by asking for their presence at family meetings or for their support during meals and other difficult times of the day/week. Playing an active role in treatment planning and programming can go a long way.

Now let’s talk about the cases in which your adult child is reluctant or resistant to help. These situations are a lot more complicated and can be even more overwhelming for many parents. There is very little that compares to the pain and suffering of witnessing a child deteriorate and hitting legal “dead ends” because of the “child’s” age. But there’s no need to put your head down or lose hope. You still have many options.

In some situations, utilizing “leverage” is a good place to start.  If the adult child is relying on financial support (i.e. college tuition, car insurance, cell phone payments etc.), or living at home, the threat of losing any of these — if treatment is not sought — may provide enough motivation to do so.

When leverage (and all else) seem to fail, parents can elect to seek medical guardianship and/or conservatorship.  Medical guardianship is the court appointment of an individual (often a parent) as the legal authority to make decisions on an individual’s medical care. A guardian is granted participation rights in the treatment process and “membership” on the treatment team thereby overriding the need for signed consent to communicate with the individual’s providers.

Conservatorship is a less “invasive” option. A conservator is a court-appointed individual (often a parent) who oversees the finances of an individual deemed incapable of doing so independently by a judge.  The oversight of finances can be useful in reducing access to funds used to fuel eating disorder behavior such as laxatives, diet pills, diuretics and/or binge foods.

Parenting is not known to be easy but parenting one over 18 can be exceptionally challenging.  It is not uncommon for parents of adult children to feel powerless, helpless and confused as to what their role is (or can be) in the treatment process.

Parents need to know their legal options, local resources – and most importantly, that whether someone is entering treatment willingly or unwillingly, recovery is still possible.

If you’re a parent of an adult challenged by disordered eating, we’re always in your corner as a resource.


Laura Roias is director at Walden’s Worcester clinic providing clinical, administrative and fiscal oversight and development for the clinic.Formerly, she was assistant director of Walden’s partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs where she obtained extensive experience conducting individual, group and family therapy.
Ms. Roias employs a strengths-based perspective and uses a wide range of therapeutic modalities including cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral and interpersonal therapy. She received her master’s from the University of North Carolina.