Discovering that your child has an eating disorder can be an extremely confusing, frustrating and painful experience. But don’t give up hope — recovery is possible and you play an important part in that process.
Many parents they feel they need to maintain a strong demeanour in order to provide the support and love necessary in caring for a child with an eating disorder. However, the reality is many parents will often switch between feeling distraught, guilty, exhausted and defeated at times, and strong, optimistic and joyful at others.
Looking after someone with an eating disorder, especially your child, is a rollercoaster ride. Below are some tips on how to not only provide the best care possible for your child during their recovery — but look after yourself as well.
Communication is essential both in promoting your child’s recovery, as well as ensuring the eating disorder does not take over the lives and interactions of everybody in your family. Being aware of how each person in the family communicates with each other is important. Calm, clear, concise communication is the best approach with everyone.
It’s important to remember that people with eating disorders often go to great lengths to hide their illness from the people they love. Even once the illness has been diagnosed and a recovery plan put in place, your child might be embarrassed or ashamed to admit they had a relapse. That’s why communication is so important — your child needs to know that they can come to you and keep you informed at every stage of this process.
Knowledge and information
Try to find out as much as you can about your child’s specific illness and eating disorders and mental health in general. Being informed is a crucial step in not only equipping yourself with the skills and strategies for supporting your child — it will also help you to understand and empathise with what they are going through, which will help the relationship.
There is a wealth of information available on this website, on other websites and in books that will provide background facts about eating disorders. Eating Disorders Victoria also has an extensive range of resources for families and friends in our library, which is available to our members.
Be a role model
Role model healthy behaviours and attitudes towards food, weight and body image. Talk to children about their self-image, make sure they are exposed to different body shapes and encourage them to see their bodies as vessels that allow them to do things that they enjoy — and that it is the things they enjoy that define them, not their bodies.
Teach them about the pitfalls of dieting and demonstrate healthy eating behaviours, such as eating intuitively (i.e. when you are hungry) and not making a big fuss when eating either so-called ‘bad’ or ‘good’ foods. For example, if you are eating a salad, don’t be overly congratulatory or proud of yourself. If you eat some cake, don’t berate yourself. Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is a simple-to-learn life skill that can lead people to enjoy a satisfying, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food. It is a skill that can help people break free from ‘food rules’ and begin to enjoy healthy, flexible and relaxed eating practices.
Mindful eating is not a diet. Mindful eating is about the way we eat, not what we eat.
Supporting other family members
If you have other children, share what you know about eating disorders, including strategies on how to best support their brother or sister towards recovery.
Try not to let the needs of the child with the eating disorder overshadow the needs of siblings. Try to give as much time and attention to your other children as possible. Communication is key in ensuring other siblings understand the eating disorder and are equipped with knowledge in how to best support their sibling.
Explain that this is an important time in their sibling’s life and while you may be directing a lot of your time and energy to the child with the eating disorder, this situation will not be forever and your love for them is just as strong.
Be aware that the distress of siblings can be very acute and is often hidden so as not to burden parents. Encourage siblings to take part in open communication with you and other people in their support network. Encourage them to express their range of feelings about how they are coping with the situation. In addition, try to ensure other siblings are provided with the opportunity to take part in social or leisure activities, which will allow them to pursue their own interests outside of the home.
Seek support for yourself whenever you are feeling overwhelmed. You may consider going to see a counsellor or opening up and sharing with somebody in your own support network. Services like the EDV Hub are also here to offer you with support and information.
The main thing to remember is that it’s not your fault that your child has an eating disorder. Organisations from around the world, including the Academy for Eating Disorders, the American
Psychiatric Association, and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), have published research that indicates that parents don’t cause eating disorders.
As NEDA writes, “Parents, especially mothers, were traditionally blamed for their child’s disorder, but more recent research supports that eating disorders have a strong biological root. Eating disorders develop differently for each person affected, and there is not a single set of rules that parents can follow to guarantee prevention of an eating disorder, however there are things everyone in the family system can do to play a role in creating a recovery-promoting environment. Psychologists have seen improvements in the speed at which children and adolescents begin to recover when including parents in the treatment process.”
Acknowledge setbacks in recovery
In order to manage your own expectations and hopes, it’s important to keep in mind that setbacks are a normal part of recovery.
Try to take every day as it comes. While relapses can seem devastating, it is best to view them as an opportunity for your child to learn how to better handle future situations. Each setback that they overcome will leave them stronger and wiser, and these are all building blocks in the recovery process. Recognition of the triggers or causes of setbacks can be the only way that a person learns about them and learns to anticipate and prepare for them.
Remember recovery is a process, not an end point — consider recovery as the process of healing, rather than an outcome. Many people want to know when the person they love will be recovered and back to their old selves. For most people, there will be no particular day, event or marker that will indicate that they are ‘recovered.’ Recovery can involve personal discovery, re-learning, challenges, achievements and setbacks. For many people, it is just the beginning of a life-long process of being more aware of who they are and what is important to them. Often, people won’t go back to being their old selves, because their recovery is a positive learning experience resulting in significant personal growth.