Instructor concerned for student with possible eating disorder

Originally Published: March 8, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 27, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I am the owner of a dance studio. I also teach dance at a local school. One of my students at my studio and school confronted me last year about a problem with eating. We talked things out and she said she would be ok. She went to dance in NYC for the last year and came back a few weeks ago. She used to be so beautiful and graceful; now she looks like a living skeleton. Before she left for NYC, she was a thin, 5'11", 130 lbs. Now she is a sickly 110 lbs. She now denies her problem along with her mother. I know she desperately needs help before it's too late, but I don't know what else I can do. Please help!

Sincerely,
Kate

Dear Kate,

Although it's not clear if your student has been diagnosed, it can be incredibly frustrating when an eating disorder is apparent to others but the person affected is in denial.

The first step you take may be to express your concern to someone at the school in a position to help, such as a guidance counselor, an advisor, or a health care provider. How has the school handled similar situations in the past? Does the school have policies or experience in dealing with eating disorders? If your student is diagnosed with an eating disorder, the school administration may have some leverage to influence the student to seek treatment.

Encouraging the student to visit a health care provider familiar with eating disorders is also a good start. You can say something like, "I'm concerned that your dancing doesn't reflect the same energy it used to. Maybe it makes sense to talk with a health care provider to get a check up." Avoid directly talking about her weight and eating habits: you want to engage the student and let her know you care about her without making her feel defensive. Expressing your thoughts without being critical is important, so phrase your concerns as how you feel or how you view the situation. You may even want to offer to go with her to her appointment. Your opinion is not a negative confrontation; it is what you are seeing and feeling.

Complex family issues often surround eating disorders and related concerns. If the student has an eating disorder, her mother may be in denial, or she may feel embarrassed, helpless, or frustrated by her daughter's behavior. You might want to reiterate to her mother how worried you really are. Let her know you would like to help. Perhaps you can research some eating disorder programs or specialists in their area. If the mother seems open to the idea, you could give her some names and phone numbers. The National Eating Disorders Association's Parent, Family & Friends Network has more information about how to help people with eating disorders, as well as a directory of treatment options and support groups.

It can be quite frustrating and worrisome when someone is unwilling to face their issues and get the help they need. It is important to realize, however, that there is a limit how much you can do in helping someone come to terms with an eating disorder. You have made the most significant choice you can — to express your concern. Therein lies the frustration of eating disorders — we can see the harm being done, and wish from the bottom of our hearts that the person seek treatment and get well, but we're often powerless in whether someone recovers. People seek help for themselves when they are ready. Sometimes their timetable is different from ours. However, as a caring adult in this student's life, you can express your concern and support freely.

Alice