Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are sometimes compared to addictions due to the fact that many people suffering from eating disorders feel compelled to repeat a self-destructive behavior despite evidence that it is harmful.
Just like with an addiction, when your child has an eating disorder, she needs to take an active role in her recovery. But this can be complex. As her caregiver, you want her to get better. As a person with an eating disorder, she may not want to change.
It’s been noted in addiction recovery that when the people who love an addict bring compassion to the equation, they are better able to support the addict as she finds her way to healing. The compassion mindset flips your thinking about the disorder from “this has to stop!” to “how can I support her towards change?”
Your child may need a team of people and professional evidence-based therapy to recover from her eating disorder, but compassion is something that you can give her for free, day in and day out. Practicing compassion will pay dividends for everyone in your family and your life.
You can show your child compassion while she or he struggles with an eating disorder by telling him or her:
- I see you. This is a deep, deep need in all human beings, but it is especially important for a child to feel seen by her parents. She needs to be seen for who she is on the inside, not how she looks or behaves on the outside.
- You are loved. You may think that your kids know this, but there is no limit to their need for love from you. It is a deep, driving force. Give them extreme love with words and actions.
- I hear you. It can be hard to listen to a child who has disordered thoughts about her body and food. You want to fix them and make them go away. But just listen and acknowledge her thoughts and they will begin to loosen their hold on her mind.
- I accept you. Unconditional love is when we are able to leave our judgement behind and love the person for who they are on the inside, regardless of their behavior. This doesn’t mean you have to like their behavior, but you will always love them.
- Your feelings are valid. The trouble with feelings is that we become afraid that acknowledging them will make them permanent and intractable. But they aren’t. Feelings are real, and they should be free to come and go like clouds across a blue sky. Let your child talk about the clouds without fear or judgement.
- I can handle this. A deep fear for anyone with a mental illness is that they will ruin all of their relationships and lose all love. As a parent, it is so important that you reassure your child that you can handle whatever happens with her, and that you will do your best to support and love her no matter what happens.
Importantly, as you bring this compassion to your child, bring it to yourself, too. You are just as deserving of compassion as you face the demons of eating disorders as your child is. Be kind to yourself!
This post was inspired and informed by an article written by Beverly Engel, L.M.F.T. in Psychology Today: How Compassion Can Help You Support an Addicted Loved One