Going to university with an eating disorder: is your child ready?
As your child prepares to embark on university life, you may find yourself grappling with mixed emotions.
No doubt, you’re incredibly proud of your child and excited for this next chapter of their life, but, perhaps you feel a touch of anxiety too?
And if your child is going to university with an eating disorder, these feelings can be more intense as you try to support their independence and ensure their safety and wellbeing.
It’s only natural to feel this way; to be concerned about how the challenges of going to university could impact your child’s eating disorder.
A new environment, coupled with academic pressures, unfamiliar social settings, and a fresh set of adult responsibilities can lead you to worry about how your child will cope without your supervision.
In this post, Dr Melissa Lotmore, a Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist with Altum Health, provides guidance to help you assess whether your child is likely to be ready to handle this experience, how to help them prepare for university with an eating disorder, and ensure the right level of support while they’re away.
Assessing your child’s readiness for university
One of your biggest fears about your child going to university with an eating disorder is likely to be not having eyes on them; not being able to closely monitor what’s going on so you can quickly spot any changes or signs that your child is struggling or becoming more unwell.
As a parent, your natural instinct is to protect your child and keep them safe. However, as they enter young adulthood, it’s also important to support their desire for independence.
It’s therefore crucial to evaluate with your child their readiness to manage their eating disorder away from the familiar comforts of home. There are a number of questions you can consider to assess this:
● Is your child able to prepare their own food and manage their weight without supervision?
For example, are they eating meals independently while keeping their weight within a healthy range for their body, or are you providing a lot of prompting and meal support? If you step back, can they keep things going or do they still need your help?
● How does your child manage stress? Have they developed healthy and helpful ways to cope with more difficult situations?
A useful gauge might be to think about how your child coped during and after the exam period; were they able to stay on track with their eating?
● How much insight or awareness do they have about their difficulties?
Is your child able to understand the things they find tricky and talk to you openly about their struggles?
● Do they feel able to ask for help?
If your child is able to advocate for their needs, whether that’s telling you or another trusted individual, it’s often a positive sign that they’re ready for the transition to university.
Having an open and honest conversation with your child about their coping strategies, support network, and treatment plans may help you both to assess whether they feel ready to go to university.
Preparing for university
Supporting your child’s journey to university with an eating disorder requires careful planning – we’ve outlined some key steps you can take to help with this transition:
● University resources
Before they start university, research and make contact with the student support services available on campus, including GP services and any eating disorder services that are available.
Make sure your child is set up with the university GP and give them information about the eating disorder, including any assessment or discharge letters so they’re aware of the diagnosis and treatment your child has had.
While your child is away at university, it’s important they have trusted individuals – in addition to yourself – that they can talk to.
Make sure their eating disorder has been disclosed in the occupational health questionnaire that’s completed at enrollment. The university is then in a position to contact them to ask if there’s anything they can put in place to help.
It might also be a good idea for your child to tell the ‘senior resident’ in their halls or their course tutor a little about their eating disorder, so they’re in a position to help if needed.
● Meal planning
Have a conversation with your child as to whether they feel they’re better suited to self-catered or catered accommodation.
For some, self-catering is the preferred option as they can prepare the foods they feel safe and comfortable with. Others may prefer catered accommodation so they don’t have to think as much about preparing their own meals.
If there are things that are important for them to eat, for example, easy snacks, help your child to plan ahead to make sure these are available. Setting up a regular grocery delivery could be a helpful way to manage this.
● Create a network
If your child has particular interests at home, for example, going to the gym or playing netball, suggest they research and enquire about joining a gym or netball club at university.
This will help them to create a network of friends with similar interests and settle into university life.
Supporting your child at university with an eating disorder
Even with the best preparation, the first few months away from home can be challenging, especially for someone at university with an eating disorder.
It’s important to continue to provide support and ensure they know they’re not alone:
- Check-in regularly via phone, text, or video call.
- Organise to visit them at university, if that’s something they would like. Or make sure they know when they will be coming home next.
- Talk openly and honestly, encouraging them to share any concerns they may have and discuss how the healthy coping strategies they used at home can be tailored for the university environment.
Knowing when to step in
It’s important to be able to recognise when your child may be struggling with their eating disorder while at university.
The transition can be hard. Many students feel lonely at times. There’s also the added pressure and adjustment required when studying among new peers.
While university is fun and exciting, there will also be challenges to manage. This is why it’s important to assess how your child is coping over time.
To gauge how they’re getting on, when you talk to them on the phone, do they seem excited about university, or low and withdrawn? Ask them the questions you would have asked them at home in terms of their eating and how they’re feeling about themself. Are they reporting more difficulties with their eating or are they reticent to speak about certain topics?
If you’re on a video call, you’ll be able to see how they look – do they look different or the same? Do they look like they’ve lost weight?
If you find your child is struggling at university with an eating disorder, they may ask you directly to come and get them. Or it may be that you notice signs that your child is becoming more unwell and you decide it’s appropriate to bring them home temporarily.
Supporting a decision to postpone university
Deferring university for a year is often beneficial for someone suffering with an eating disorder. Most universities will be supportive of this decision, too.
A gap year provides the opportunity for them to prioritise their health, gain life experiences, and develop more independence.
Up until this point, your child’s focus has probably been on studying for exams. Deferring their university place will allow them the space to shift that focus onto their recovery and wellbeing.
The goal no longer needs to be productivity, it can be to travel, explore, have new experiences, expand horizons, and see the world in a different way.
And while taking a year out, they can practise greater independence while still within the familiarity of a home environment.
Getting a part-time job and gradually taking on more responsibility at home is a good stepping stone, and will help your child to cope with competing demands when they ‘fly the nest’. For example, what should they do if the food they want isn’t in the fridge? And are they able to develop their flexibility by changing meal times around, for example?
Engaging in treatment or additional support to help them prepare for coping at university with an eating disorder is also recommended to help them navigate this new chapter of adulthood while managing their eating disorder.
Our licensed therapists are specialists in working with young adults on the treatment of eating disorders. Why not reach out to find out how we can help? Book your free 20-minute consultation here.