College readiness for students with eating disorders is a topic that comes up frequently. Learn more about why we encourage a potential college student to demonstrate six months of recovery (versus a shorter time frame).
Our Eating Disorder College Readiness Guide and Checklist
In our oft-cited Eating Disorder College Readiness Guide and blog, we strongly encourage six months of readiness—weight maintenance and abstinence from eating disorder symptoms—prior to a young adult going away to college. We are sometimes asked if there is research to document this time frame. Unfortunately, there is not—this is an issue that deserves further study. Until we have more data, let us explain why we chose this timeframe.
Our Clinical Experience With The Transition to College
Our guidance is based on our own clinical experience and our collaboration with several other eating disorder specialists. We are often consulted during the summer prior to the start of school in August or September to help prepare an unwell teen with an eating disorder. We have seen situations in which teens looked okay during the summer but struggled once at college in the fall. We have seen dire situations in which a young adult quickly weight-restored just prior to the start of college, only to lose weight precipitously when they went away.
A strong desire to go to college can give young adults the drive to prove to their parents that they are in recovery. They can put up a good façade, and this “acting as if” can be truly helpful in changing behaviors. However, two to three months is not really enough time to make these behaviors stick.
It takes time for behaviors to become new habits. By six months, recovery habits are more ingrained. Furthermore, brain recovery is often delayed after physical recovery. More time in recovery gets you more sustained brain recovery.
Summer Months Are Not The Same
During the 2-3 months prior to starting college, young adults are usually on break from school and under less stress than they will be under during college. We want to see them practice recovery behaviors under stress; that is, during a school semester. This is another reason we do not want to only rely on the 2 to 3 summer months as an indication of readiness. We would like to see them demonstrate recovery behaviors a full semester prior to the start of college. This gives a better barometer of how they might manage the eating disorder under the increased academic pressure of college. Recovering during the summer months is great, but the start of school may again exacerbate things. Learn more about what to watch for in a college student showing signs of an eating disorder.
Recovery From An Eating Disorder Is Not Linear
Recovery is not linear. There will inevitably be ups and downs. Six months will give you time to observe how your college student does with the challenges and ups and downs of recovery. You will get more time to observe setbacks and how your child handles them. They will be able to practice getting back on track while in their home environment.
A timeframe of fewer than six months may not give enough time to cycle through the usual course. You may observe only ups. With more time you can provide more deliberate challenges to see how they handle them. In our How to Prepare Your Young Adult blog post, we provide numerous examples of challenges to arrange, such as surprise ice cream outings and presentations of previously feared foods.
College Can Be Challenging For Students With Eating Disorders
Going away to college can be challenging for the healthiest of young adults. For college students with eating disorders, it can be even more difficult. Diet culture is alive and well on college campuses, making it a harder recovery environment than home for most. There are diet messages in expected and unexpected places. We have seen it all—messages around the campus urging students to take the stairs instead of the elevator, roommates making negative comments about fun foods, dormmates bonding over group exercise classes, roommates with scales weighing themselves daily to avoid “the freshman 15,”–learn more about this myth, and sororities judging pledges based on thinness. Giving your young adult the best chance of success involves a more extended period of sustained recovery.
Learn More About Preparing Your Child With An Eating Disorder For College
Our comprehensive Eating Disorder College Readiness Guide provides a checklist and steps to prepare your young adult. We recommend starting to talk about college readiness at least a year prior to them going. We also recommend sending them with an eating disorder college contract.
Get Help For a Teen Or College Student With An Eating Disorder In California
If your teen has an eating disorder, our eating disorder therapists are able to provide counseling. If your college student is experiencing an eating disorder, our specialized eating disorder therapists can help. Contact us for more information or to get started on the counseling journey.
College Process Group for College Students With Eating Disorders in California
We run an online process group for California college students with eating disorders. Several insurances are accepted. Register here.