When a child develops an eating disorder, it impacts everyone in the family. Parents are likely to feel shocked, scared or overwhelmed. Mothers, in particular, are susceptible to self-blame. They ask themselves: How did this happen to my bright, vivacious, high-achieving child? What went wrong? Was there something I should have done that could have prevented this? Is he/she going to get well? What do I do now?
If you are the parent of a son or daughter who has an eating disorder, you probably have experienced most of the emotions other parents in your position feel: fear for your child's life, grief over how he/she is no longer the same, anger at the way this is destroying the equanimity of your family, frustration at your son/daughter for their choices, helpless to make your child change, and guilty as you anguish over clues about what you should have done differently.
And -- in the midst of taking your child to a physician and a therapist, and maybe a nutritionist or a psychiatrist -- you are wishing there was someone to talk to about what you are going through. Your friends, unless their child has been through something similar, don't seem to quite get it. If you are the mom, you know your spouse is concerned, but his vantage point is different because men don't face the same weight and body image pressure that girls and women do in our culture. And if you are the dad, it can be really difficult to comprehend how your child’s unusual eating habits relate to her moods, emotions and self-esteem.
Help for your child is essential, but help for you as parents -- and for you with your child -- is just as vital. Eating disorders are complex in origin and the path towards recovery can be a rocky one. Your attitudes, words and behaviors can significantly affect your eating disordered child. And your child needs to be able to communicate with you. An eating disorder is more than a constellation of food behaviors and body image concerns. An eating disorder conveys symbolically what your child cannot express verbally. Developing clear communication helps heal everyone in the family.
Seek out the help of an eating disordered specialist who is a family therapist. Your child may need his/her own therapist, but your whole family will benefit from having a safe place to talk about the fears, concerns and questions that you are wrestling with.
Here are a few guidelines to help you manage during this difficult time.
Six Dos and Don’ts for Parents of an Eating Disordered Child
1 – Do learn about eating disorders. As you become more informed, it will help you to understand the chaos and confusion that your child is experiencing.
2 – Do get support for yourself. You are not responsible for your child’s eating disorder and you cannot make your child get well. Talking with a family therapist who is well versed in eating disorders can help you understand what you can and can’t do for your child, and what you need to do to take care of yourself.
3 - Do continue to relate to your child as a normal person. Your child has a problem, but he/she is much more than the problem. Treating your child as fragile or sick or in some way abnormal will only exacerbate his or her feelings of shame and low self-worth.
4 – Don’t blame yourself for your child’s eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex in origin and many factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
5 – Don’t blame your child for developing an eating disorder. No one ”chooses” to have an eating disorder. An eating disorder develops out of a complicated and not wholly understood interplay of internal and external factors.
6 – Don’t take your child’s eating disorder personally. Your child may be sullen, angry or withdrawn, or lash out at you. Set appropriate limits about behaving respectfully towards you, but know that there are a lot of feelings going on under the surface, many of which have nothing to do with you.
If you are the parent of a child suffering from an eating disorder, you know how painful and stressful it can be. Remember that you do not have to manage this alone. For more information about eating disorders, go to the page of my website, avisrumney.com/eating-disorders.
Call me today at 415-602-1403 for a free 15 minute phone consultation.