When a healthy child gets sick, parents can usually find a fairly simple answer: Tylenol, amoxicillin, cough medicine. But when your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, parents face a problem for which there is no immediate fix. Caring for and supporting your child with an eating disorder can be confusing and scary.
Parents attempting to support their child with an eating disorder may struggle with a sense of helplessness and frustration when unable to quickly restore their child’s health. While responsible for your child, you are not fully in control. Ultimately, it is up to your child to choose recovery. As parents, your task is to create an environment of support and information for your child, so they can begin to take responsibility for their own well-being.
But what if your child is not ready to self-motivate, and their health is in critical condition?
Sometimes the priority must be stabilizing a child at a treatment facility or medical providers, to manage the dire physical repercussions of starvation or purging. But medical stabilization is only the first step in the healing process.
Once your child’s physical health has been addressed, a long road still lies ahead. Psychological and emotional healing does not necessarily happen in tandem with the physical restoration. Parents often feel an understandable impatience at this point, and an urge to accelerate and steer this stretch of the journey. But you must accept what they cannot do–i.e. “fix the problem”–while recognizing all the ways you can be supportive as their child undertakes one of the most challenging and scary tasks: letting go of their eating disorder.
One parent with adolescent recovering from an eating disorder took refuge in the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What You Can Do
- Get Informed: It is hard to have empathy about something that feels foreign, so familiarize yourself with eating disorders. Seek out information, get educated. Research the experts in the field. Find approaches that resonate with you. Then share this information with your child so they can understand the ramifications of the eating disorder. If they hear it enough, they may begin to understand, and decide to turn towards health.
- Connect: Turn to your co-parent, or another family member or loved one, to discuss decisions and vent. The irritability, explosions, despair, and/or silence that your adolescent may exhibit when in the throws of their eating disorder can be baffling, heartbreaking, and infuriating for you as a parent. It is important to have someone to talk with about your feelings, as well as to feel a sense of partnership in making decisions.
- Prioritize Self-Care: Remember the oxygen mask on an airplane technique: you can only effectively care for your child when your own needs are being met. Eat balanced meals. Get appropriate amounts of sleep and exercise. Engage in activities that feel nourishing and joyful for you. Model a healthy lifestyle for your child.
- Practice Compassion: Offer yourself and your child compassion. Guilt, blame, and shame do not create the gentle conditions that best serve healing. Frame the unhealthy behaviors your child engages in not as “bad behavior” that warrants reprimand or punishment, but as symptoms of a disorder that reflect the pain they feel inside, and call for love and solace.
- Cultivate Trust: Give your child every opportunity to trust you. Your child is likely experiencing tremendous shame about their eating disorder, which compels them to retreat into silence and not speak their truth. Let your child know they can tell you when they purge or are feeling fear about eating, and that you are trying to understand–even if you cannot ever fully understand. It is so important for a child to feel safe to describe aloud their fear and pain. Speaking truth takes the power away from the eating disorder, which thrives in secrecy and silence.
- Believe in Recovery: It is imperative for parents to believe recovery is possible. While it is not going to be easy or linear–your child likely will make progress and then fall into unhealthy patterns again–that is just part of the long journey of recovery. Model for your child an unwavering faith that they have the courage and strength to attain health, and that stumbles are not signs of failure. Especially in times of setback, it is crucial to offer unconditional support and emphasize your belief that recovery is within reach.
Supporting your child with an eating disorder can be challenging. If you are struggling to help your child suffering with an eating disorder, please consider reaching out to us for help. We offer support for parents. We help care for your child – in college, still at home, even as young as 12 years old.
Parent “Tool Kit” from the National Eating Disorder Association:
8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder by Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb