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How Parents Can Help Their Kids Cope With—and Recover From—Eating Disorders
When your child has an eating disorder, you may feel helpless. You don’t have to.[content warning: eating disorders]
“I used to stand outside the bathroom door every time you were showering, with my ear pressed to the wall, trying to hear if you were vomiting. I didn’t know what to do.”
My heart broke when my beautiful, amazing mother shared those words with me four years after my recovery. She’d never told me that before, and we’d never really discussed the realities of just how deep my struggle with my eating disorder ran.
The truth is, I never really told anyone about what was going on with me. Not even during my recovery.
The secrecy, the shame and the guilt … it was all still so overwhelming. And although I was desperate to shout from the rooftops how strong I was becoming, I was still so afraid of what people would say about my battle. I was still so afraid of letting my parents down by telling them everything that had happened to me.
Although the individual with the eating disorder is the one most deeply affected by their disorder, there are very real flow-on effects that will alter the the whole family dynamic. Particularly when a child is still at home, parents’ lives are turned upside down by eating disorders.
In the parent/child relationship involving a child’s eating disorder, there are two major perspectives that compound the situation:
Parents, struggling to walk the fine line between “disinterested” and “overbearing” as they navigate the minefield of parenting, often don’t know what their kids need from them anymore. And although they have a sneaking suspicion that something is wrong in their child’s life, they don’t want to exacerbate anything — so they stay silent (the worst thing they could possibly do).
Some parents will be painfully aware of exactly what’s happening to their child, while others won’t have the slightest idea. This will largely depend on the nature of the parent/child relationship before their child’s eating disorder manifests. Many parents will wrongfully identify disordered behaviors as a “phase” or “attention seeking behavior” and, in an attempt to discourage their child from these behaviors, will make comments or actions that actually push their children further away.
To many parents, the obvious solution is to stage an intervention by sitting their child down and directly addressing the food/body/weight/fitness behaviors in question, which can make things worse. Some parents take their child’s illness as a failure of their parenting skills and begin to view the child’s behaviors as selfish or deliberately destroying the family.
Children, who don’t want to disappoint their parents and who have complex relationships of both safety and rebellion, pull away from their parents. They may feel as though their parents are always watching/suspicious of them or conversely, they may feel as though their parents don’t care at all. Children with eating disorders are so riddled with inner conflict that they may often feel caught between wanting to cry out to help from their parents vs. wanting to run away and never have to be confronted with a discussion of their illness. They may feel worthless, deserving of their illness or hopeless. In their mind, any words of “comfort” or “support” from parents is often twisted to be threatening, derogatory or a challenge. And in cases where parents are explicitly unsupportive or unloving, the child will often instead find comfort in those who encourage them to descend further into their illness.
When you start to drill down past the physical symptoms of the eating disorder, past the psychological genesis of the eating disorder to the complex emotional dynamics that rule each and every family, it becomes clearer why many children may hesitate in coming to their parents about their struggles.
I’ve worked with many mothers of daughters with eating disorders, and being a formerly anorexic teenage girl with an equally confused mother, I’m in a unique position to understand these perspectives.
Mothers often say to me, “I just don’t understand why they didn’t/can’t just ask me for help! They know I’d do anything for them!”
There are several key fallacies to this thinking:
- Assuming that the child has the ability to exercise free will and rational thinking that overrides any influence of the disordered brain;
- Assuming that the child’s lack of truth telling is a clear demonstration of faithlessness in the parent’s love for them; and
- Assuming that had the child come forward, they’d be able to fix it.
All of these faulty forms of thinking draw on the parent’s own emotionally-charged position in which they view their child’s struggles as a fundamental parenting flaw.
So how do we change this?
How do we make kids with eating disorders actually want to come forward?
And how do we equip parents with the skills to navigate a child’s eating disorder?
As a parent, it’s critical to address any concerns you may have for your child’s mental health as early as possible. And be prepared: helping your child may be significantly more difficult than a heart-to-heart chat and a hug. It may also include psychiatric assessments, helping your child have support in the form of treatment programs or inpatient/outpatient offerings, hospital visits and more. If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, the first step is to open the lines of communication and allow yourself to focus not on the emotional disruption to the family dynamic, but on their physical and mental health.
The vital skill set required here for parents is compassion (compassion for what the child is going through & compassion for themselves). Compassion, by nature, is gentle. It’s soothing and calm and takes the form of active listening, supportive statements and allowing each other (and ourselves) the space we need to not feel pressured.
Compassion is the polar opposite of harshness, which is unfortunately the emotion that parents often draw upon (led by their own heightened emotions) in dealing with a child with an eating disorder.
And thankfully, compassion is easy to draw upon when we allow ourselves to pause and take a breath before reacting proactively, instead of reactively, to the situations that we’re in.
Here is a basic framework for how to begin:
- Before you even think about discussing this issue with your child, do some research on eating disorders and try and gain an understanding of what they may be going through.
- Set up a time to talk. This should be a private and calm meeting with your child to discuss your concerns honestly, in a caring manner.
- Voice your concerns by sharing specific memories of times when you felt concerned about their behaviors, and explain that you think these things might suggest they need professional help.
- Ask your child to see a therapist or doctor. Offer to make the appointment for them or have them help you choose a therapist to see (for instance, by allowing them to work with a female doctor if they’d feel more comfortable.
- Avoid turning the conversation into a conflict. If your child refuses to acknowledge that there’s a problem or becomes hostile, calmly restate your concerns and say that you’re there to support them. Leave the conversation on an open note, and try again at another time.
If your child does have an eating disorder, remember that you are not to blame. These are incredibly complex mental illnesses that can stem from a wide variety of contributing factors. It’s up to an experienced professional to diagnose and treat them. The best thing you can do is keep your eyes open to your child’s behavior and keep your lines of support and communication with them as open as possible.
- Try not to get angry with your child, as they will be acutely aware of your emotional state.
- Be patient and expect that it won’t be an easy process.
- Avoid making specific comments about your child’s body or weight.
- Assure your child that they’re not alone, and their struggles don’t change your love for them.
- Don’t attempt to take on the role of their therapist.
- Seek support for yourself from a professional too, if you feel like you need it. It’s important that you’re as mentally well as possible to help your child on their recovery journey.
Along with this, the language that you use is very important. Here are some tips to help you navigate what to say:
Avoid framing your concerns as accusations.
Do say: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been eating as much lately. Is there a reason for that? I’m getting concerned.”
Don’t say: “Why aren’t you eating enough anymore? Are you trying to starve yourself?”
Don’t use shame as a weapon.
Do say: “I’m worried about you because you’re acting differently, and it makes me sad to hear you vomiting.”
Don’t say: “You just need to eat! Stop acting like this!”
Don’t oversimplify their struggles.
Do say: “I’m not sure what you’re feeling, but I want to help you get some support so that you can overcome this.”
Don’t say: “Just stop! It’s not that difficult.”
If you can keep compassion at the front of your mind, this difficult process can be considerably softened and your child will appreciate your attempts to be there (whether or not they show this to you). And additionally, if you can practice compassion with your child, you’ll be able to more easily apply this to yourself, too — an important skill in self-love, regardless of our age or mental state.
*Please note: In cases where an individual is extremely unwell, you may wish to speak to a doctor/therapist first before speaking to your child if you feel that your intervention will only cause distress and possible harm. For a global list of support resources that you can contact, please click here.