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Summer can be stressful for children and teens with eating disorders. Here’s how you can support them.

Regardless of your age, these first signs of summer can be intoxicating: outdoor picnics, pool parties and much-needed warmer weather. But for anyone with an eating disorder — or their loved ones — those same joyous pursuits can make the season daunting.

“Summer can be a prime time for the onset of eating disorders,” says Equip therapist Emily Boyle, MA, LAC, NCC. “Routines change, school ends, hot weather requires lighter clothing and days become less structured.”

Whether your child is home from college and you suspect something is wrong or you are trying to juggle summer camp logistics, there are a multitude of factors to consider. Fortunately, with the right tools and resources, families navigating recovery can face the toughest potential scenarios this summer. Here’s what our experts say:

How to handle a return home from college

When you haven’t seen your student for several weeks or months, any kind of physical, psychological or emotional change can come through loud and clear. For some parents, that means spotting the signs of an eating disorder.

According to Brittney Lauro, LCSW, therapist at Equip, some basic warning signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Physical changes: Your child has had a sudden change in weight (either weight loss or weight gain).
  • Excessive focus on shape/weight and control: having a significant number of thoughts and conversations about body image, appearance and how one might try to control this through diet, exercise, etc.
  • Food restriction: cut out certain foods or food groups, or reduce the amount of food eaten.
  • Physiological changes: changes in heart rate, feeling dizzy, complaints of feeling cold, etc.

Equip family mentor Lisa Stein agrees that parents of students returning home for the summer should be on the lookout for changes. “If your child looks skinny or thinner than when they left, that’s the first warning sign; it’s unusual for kids to lose weight in their freshman year of college,” Stein says. “It’s a concern if they sleep a lot of the day and skip meals or are preoccupied with exercise. If you find that large amounts of food are missing in the morning, your child may binge at night after not eating regularly during the day. And if your child makes multiple excuses to go to the bathroom during and shortly after meals, he may be purging himself.

While knowing the warning signs is one thing, starting a conversation with your child can be incredibly difficult. Stein emphasizes that it’s always important to stay alert and trust your instincts. “If your child becomes defensive when asked about any of these red flags, saying they are an adult and deserve privacy, I will continue to monitor behaviors and seek medical attention if necessary. “, she says.

How to Navigate Summer Camp

“Knowing where your recovering child is and/or what their relationship is to food and their body can really help make informed decisions about summer camp,” says Lauro. “If you feel like the answer is ‘Yes, we’re ready for camp,’ make a plan with your child and camp to help maintain a regular feeding pattern. Talk about different scenarios that may arise and work with your child to help them feel ready to navigate a variety of situations, from eating to body-focused/diet culture conversations with friends.

If you’re unsure how to create an action plan with your child, Lauro suggests considering these factors first:

  • Know your side. What is the status of staff and supervision? Who can your child go to for help and who can you go to if you are worried about your child?
  • Find out how meals and snacks work in your camp. What is the program ? Do staff sit with campers during meal times? What happens if a camper does not eat or is hungry between regular meals?
  • Discover the physical activities offered. Is the camp highly competitive or focused on fun and teamwork?
  • Remember: you know your child best. “Be sure to check in with your child before you leave for camp and while they’re at camp,” Lauro says. “Help them navigate any difficult situations that may arise – from comments about body image, to what to do if a friend isn’t eating and how to keep eating, to feeling comfortable in locker room situations.”

JD Ouellette, Director of the Lived Experience Team, adds that it’s important to consider issues around a child’s level of autonomy. “With any camp, I would talk to everyone from the camp director to dietetics to counseling to assess their knowledge and protocols around eating disorders and the level of support that they can bring to your child,” she says. “I would not send a child with a history of eating disorders to camp without disclosing that information.”

How to Sail on a Family Vacation

Vacations can be a great opportunity to create closer family bonds and allow parents to better monitor a recovering child, but they can also be incredibly stressful and require strategy. “When our kids are babies and toddlers, we joke that we don’t go on vacations, we go on trips. The same goes for a child with an eating disorder,” says Ouellette. “You can be successful on vacation, as long as you understand that your life is still organized around supporting recovery. Except now, with better scenery and more potentially triggering situations, planning ahead is what will help you succeed.

Any parent of a recovering child knows that consistency is key, but consistency can be hard to maintain if a family vacation is part of the summer itinerary. Lauro suggests that families try to stick to routines as much as possible by:

  • Stick to a regular eating pattern (i.e. three meals and three snacks)
  • Focus on not going more than 3-4 hours without eating
  • Travel with accessible, convenient and portable food options like granola bars, nuts and crackers
  • Pack recovery-oriented clothes that your loved one can feel comfortable in, that aren’t too tight, and that don’t have a strong connection to their eating disorder

“If you can’t do these things, maybe wait until next year when your family can be more spontaneous. For us, it took several years before vacations were enjoyable, and I still follow many of those guidelines now,” Stein says.

Focus on the fun

Despite the summer’s potential challenges during the recovery, the season can still hold promise and have a meaningful connection. “Remember that while summer can be a difficult time for children in treatment or recovery, it can also be a fun time!” Boyle said. “Incorporate summer activities into the ways you motivate your child – a trip to the beach, gardening, a day at the pool, going to the carnival, spending more time with peers, etc.”

For parents feeling stuck or frustrated, it helps to see the season as an opportunity to develop essential skills and lean on others. “You know your child best; trust your instincts,” says Lauro. “Summer is a time of transition and we know that in recovery, transition times can be difficult. Remember that a slip or setback does not mean it will be a complete relapse.