Are you trying to decide whether or not to tell your child’s school about their eating disorder?
Are you worried your child will be stigmatized, punished or judged by their peers and/or teachers if you tell them the truth?
Are you afraid you child will be kicked out of school or forced to repeat a grade if you disclose their illness?
When your child or teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, you can feel all alone as a caregiver. Eating disorders are often surrounded by shame and guilt, especially for parents. In fact, many books and articles on eating disorders still tend to blame parents, especially mothers, for the development of their child’s symptoms.
For this reason, families often try to hide their child’s disorder from the school, in fear of being judged or punished.
This is truly a shame, because over my many years as a therapist helping families, I have learned that schools will often bend over backwards to help students in their recovery. Many times I see parents and the students themselves neglecting to tell the school about the problem, resulting in the child having to take a leave of absence or drop out of school completely.
The School's Role
Eating disorder specialists will know how to work with your child’s school to develop specialized plans to enable him or her to continue in school while modifying the amount of work and stress. Luckily, at least on the high school and junior high school level, I have found schools both public and private to be extremely caring and accommodating to families who are struggling with the life-threatening illnesses of anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating.
Administrators and teachers are extremely flexible in modifying the students homework, time required to be in class, testing schedule, and assignments due, in order to allow the student to work on their recovery and keep up-to-date with their classmates’ schedules.
Just so you get an idea of how flexible the schools can be, here are some actual examples of what schools have done with my young clients to help them:
- I’ve seen schools allow students to take the remainder of a marking period off in order to recover, using the existing grades to cover the entire semester.
- It is also common for schools to allow students to attend for half days instead of full days so they can go attend therapy sessions and nutrition counseling, as well as take time to rest if they need to.
- There are also programs to allow students to study virtually from home, either through a hospital homebound program, or through a specialized program where teachers send modified homework assignments.
- Schools have also provided private areas were students can have snacks and additional meals in order to work on weight restoration without having to return home in the middle of the day.
Looking at Concerns and Fears...
As for your child being judged and bullied, as a parent I can understand that fear all too well.
I have found that parents and their children are often terrified to tell anyone about their struggle out of the fear of being ostracized, bullied, and left out at school.
I’m happy to report that in over 25 years of helping families and children recover from eating disorders, I have never heard a story about a young person being punished or bullied when they disclosed their situation to teachers, administration, and even to their peers.
I’m not saying that bad situations never happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule. No matter what bad stories we see on the news about the worst of human nature, the truth is most people are innately good and want to help each other, and this is what I see over and over again when families have the courage to talk about the eating disorder and to ask for support.
What I more commonly hear is how friends reach out to the child who is in recovery to offer support, keeping them company during difficult meals in the lunch room, offering supportive texts and phone calls, and wanting to learn more about eating disorders so they can help us much as they can.
It can be frightening to tell, but once you do you are likely to experience enormous relief. Eating disorders are hard enough to face alone-your family needs the support of a strong community to stack the odds in your child’s favor for recovery.
Luckily, you are likely to have a very positive experience and not have to shoulder the entire burden alone.
You know what they say about keeping a secret-it can become unbearable weight upon you and your child. Additionally, if you choose not to reach out to the school community, you may be missing out on an essential element of your treatment team and extra support that can make the difference between full recovery and hospitalization.
And remember, it’s not your fault that your child developed an eating disorder!
We Work as a Team
Anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder, orthorexia and compulsive overeating are extremely complex conditions that do not stem from one primary cause, such as your parenting. They arise from an individual mix of genetic, chemical and environmental triggers and they are the number one killer of all the mental health diagnoses. Please don’t waste your precious energy in fighting these illnesses by blaming yourself and feeling like you have to live with an unbearable secret.
Unfortunately, eating disorders are becoming a widespread epidemic, and schools are being forced to increase their awareness and resources available to help their students. They no longer have the luxury of ignoring the problem, and most of them have risen to the occasion.
Often it requires the help of a qualified treatment team to negotiate and communicate with the school to develop a treatment plan that is specialized to your child. But the good news is that, personally, I have never encountered a situation with the client where the school did not work hard to help the student be successful both at school and in their recovery.
Don’t be afraid once you reach out to ask the school to work with you and your child’s team to develop creative solutions that will disrupt their schooling as little as possible. Often parents do not know that these creative solutions are available. Schools want to help children be healthy and succeed! Give them a chance to prove it to you.