Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and ARFID are serious conditions that can have profound physical, social and emotional consequences. Eating disorders invariably disrupt both individual and family functioning. Remorse and self-blame are frequent emotions experienced by parents of children with eating disorders. These feelings are amplified when providers distance or exclude parents from the treatment process.
Families are not to blame for eating disorders. Well, only so much as they may pass along a genetic vulnerability [to developing an eating disorder] to their offspring. But other than genetics, parents are much more the solution than the problem. In fact, the leading treatments for eating disorders establish parents as central to the treatment process.
Wherever you may be in the process – whether you’re just beginning to understand your child’s condition or you’re deeply engaged in family-based treatment for eating disorders, here are a few tips that might be helpful:
Separate The Person From The Illness
It’s important to understand that your child is not their illness; rather, they are under the influence of an illness. In a way, the eating disorder has co-opted your child’s brain; the goal of treatment is to extricate the child from the clutches of the disease. Your child is not the problem; the problem is the problem. You can see how this thinking may increase the empathy you have for your child (it’s really not their choice or fault) and it may also empower you to fight the disease and not the child. After all, if a person was trying to take over your child’s brain, rest assured you’d have them apprehended immediately (a nice way of putting it!).
Too often, parents are afraid to say anything or intervene for fear of angering their child or making things worse. The urge to tiptoe is a BIG red flag. Most likely, it means that you’re accommodating the eating disorder – opening the door for the disorder to rule your child’s actions. If you see something, say something! If you see your child engaging in a behavior that is disordered or harmful, it’s so important to gently but firmly, express your concern and engage your child in a plan to address the issue. Often I let parents know that if they’re met with defense or anger, it reinforces that the problem is real and must be addressed – not accommodated.
Be Understanding and Patient
It is important to remember that recovery is not linear and certainly not overnight. There will be escalations, tears, and setbacks. It’s essential to take one day at a time and balance the desire for change with plenty of validation and understanding in the process.
Model Flexibility and Forgiveness
When it comes to helping a child with eating disorder recover, one of the most important things you can do is encourage a flexible and compassionate approach to self-nourishment and self-care. Folks who develop eating disorders tend to be a bit “black and white”, seeing things as “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong.” This attitude can lead to extreme or rigid rules in relation to food/eating. Ultimately, recovery will require a loosening or relaxing of “shoulds” and “musts” to allow for a more natural, easy, and joyful relationship with food. It can help when family members model and promote this more flexible and liberated approach to food. Ideally, no foods are “bad.” It’s “healthy” to enjoy food, to be able to eat in a variety of settings, to be able to indulge cravings… Don’t be afraid to “show off” when you are easy on yourself and engage with food in a way that is joyful and free. Your child will be watching.
Seek Professional Help
In addition to providing emotional support at home, it is also important for parents to seek professional help for their child when needed. Working with a treatment team experienced in treating eating disorders can provide support for both your child and you. A treatment team often includes a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, and doctor who can provide guidance on how best to handle the situation while also offering comfort and encouragement during the recovery process.
At Columbus Park, we provide gold standard, evidence-based treatment for children, adolescents and teens of all ages and genders. We believe that even severe eating disorders in children can be treated at home, especially when caregivers are given the tools to support their child. To learn more about our services, reach out to us today.