Encouraging Your Child to Stay in College Without Sacrificing Eating Disorder Support
Nicole Siegfried, Ph.D., CEDS; Chief Clinical Officer
The transition to college can be difficult for all families because parents and their children are trying to navigate new levels of independence. It may be the first time your child is away from home and on their own, so you want to encourage autonomy. For college students without eating disorders, this makes perfect sense. However, if your college student has an eating disorder or is struggling with eating disorder symptoms, you may need to be more involved in your child’s transition than other parents.
At Alsana, we’ve worked with many families whose loved ones’ eating disorder began or worsened during the transition to college. Parents often report that they wished they would have intervened sooner, but that they were confused as to how much they should be involved. To help these families, we’ve developed a flexible intensive outpatient program (IOP). This program lets college students choose the time of day they attend IOP programming based on their school schedule or the time when they need the most support. Our IOP program is available in four-hour blocks from 7:00 am–7:00 pm Monday-Friday, and 7:00 am-3:00 pm Saturdays and Sundays.
Early and Preventive Care to Keep Your Child In School
It’s common for parents to avoid approaching their college student with their concerns about their eating disorder behaviors. Unfortunately, this can result in the student’s symptoms escalating to the point that they have to withdraw from school to get treatment. When symptoms are addressed earlier in the process or in a preventive manner, it is much more likely that the student can remain in school while working towards recovery.
If your child has an outpatient team, work closely with this team to establish “markers” that your child needs more treatment than outpatient provides. For instance, this may be that their grades are slipping, that their labs are impaired, that they are losing weight, or that they are isolating.
The Importance of Eating Disorder Support During College Years
Human brain development is not fully complete until age 25-26. When a college student is struggling with eating disorder symptoms, their cognitive function is even more compromised due to malnutrition and the effects of the eating disorder. As parents, you want to give your child “the benefit of the doubt,” but when your child has an eating disorder, it is often recommended to err on the side of caution and intervene.
Often young adults going to college have a “home treatment team” that they see. Creating a “school treatment team” may seem unnecessary or overreactive, resulting in decreased outpatient support at school. Unfortunately, this may create a space for relapse. Although the client may have been doing well during the summer, the added stresses of college can be a trigger for an escalation in symptoms.
Families often view times of transition as a time to pull back on treatment. However, the opposite is true. This is a time to set up a treatment team at school, utilize school counseling services, and take advantage of on-campus support groups. It also may be time to utilize a flexible intensive outpatient program, in which the student can attend classes and other school functions, and also receive the support of therapists, dietitians, and groups during the transition period.
How to Help Your Child Seek Eating Disorder Care
Parents may have to provide different levels of support for their loved one to receive necessary treatment:
- Encouragement: For some students, parents can simply encourage and support their loved one in getting extra support and treatment when they return to school. Try reminding your child that it is a sign of strength, courage, and a strong recovery to be proactive in setting up support (e.g., “it is not a sign of weakness or a ‘plan for relapse.’”) For some college students this is enough support for them to seek the level of eating disorders care they need.
- Concern: For other students, parents may need to take their support to the next level. These are students who may already be struggling when it’s time to return to school or may be calling home the first several weeks, showing signs of struggle. If you find yourself in this situation, try voicing your concern more strongly, “I think you need to set up a treatment team at school, or you need to attend group therapy. You are showing signs of struggle and if this continues, you may be in full relapse, which could prevent you from completing the semester.”
- Leverage: Still for other students, parents may need to come in with a heavier hand. At times, it may be appropriate to make school conditional on having a treatment team or support services. For instance, “we will pay for your school, but you have to be in treatment at the same time.” These are students who are actively struggling or who have a history of severe struggle.
Here to Help Your College Student
At Alsana, we exist to help all families and clients in their eating disorder recovery. Our flexible IOP support is designed specifically to help college students stay in school while still getting the eating disorder care they need.
We also offer a free virtual family support group led by a master’s level clinician where you can get more information and coaching in supporting your loved one. In addition, we offer a free support group to all individuals who may be struggling with eating disorder symptoms.
If you think our program may be right for your child, or you simply want to talk through symptoms and the level of care that may be right, fill out a form here or give us a call at 855-915-0213. We look forward to hearing from you soon!