It is never a good time to discover that your child has an eating disorder. But parents can feel a special type of despair, anger and worry when they learn that their adult child has an eating disorder.
If your child developed the eating disorder under your roof, but you were not aware, you may worry that you failed them somehow. How could you not know everything about your child? What did you fail to do? Why weren’t you able to help them avoid this?
Even if your child didn’t develop the eating disorder until after they were living with you, you probably still worry that your parenting methods may have impacted your child. Was there anything you could have done differently to help your child avoid this fate?
If you’re like most parents, you’re freaking out at this point. Please, take a deep breath and consider the following:
The idea that we can separate nature from nurture is outdated. The fact is that genetics and environment interact to create the conditions that may lead to an eating disorder.
We see genetic similarities in people who have eating disorders. And it’s not uncommon for eating disorders to run in families. Twin studies have discovered that sometimes identical twins raised separately often share eating disorder behaviors.
But even if you don’t see anyone in your family tree who has an eating disorder, eating disorders rarely occur all by themselves. They are often accompanied by anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, Autism, and other disorders that are involve emotional processing challenges.
Now look at the tree. Do you see some similarities? Your child’s eating disorder is based on many things over which you had no control. This includes their inborn temperament and their genes.
Eating disorders are called “biopsychosocial” disorders, which mean they combine biological (genetic), psychological, and social elements.
You simply can’t divorce most eating disorders from our society. First, we live in a fatphobic diet culture. The thin body is promoted as “healthy” and “good.” While fatter bodies are considered “lazy” and “stupid.” The weight stigma in our culture is persistent and pervasive. From doctors offices to classrooms to sports fields, kids are taught to fear fat.
We also live in a culture that has a fair amount of foodphobia. For example, right now there’s a great deal of fear about sugar and “junk food.” Think of the preschool teacher who insists that kids only bring “healthy” snacks. And even though they come from the best intentions, these fears about food can create an environment in which disordered eating thrives.
There are many issues with our society that could be listed here. But I’ll end with the fact that our society shows very little support for parenting. As a result parents (mostly mothers) are overloaded and exhausted. Many are juggling the societal expectations of being a perfect woman, wife, mother, friend, and adult daughter to ailing parents. And that’s before we get to any career or school work. American society makes it hard to be a good parent, and kids struggle not because their parents don’t care, but because the social structure and support just isn’t there.
Family dynamics make up a big part of the environment our kids grow up in. The first thing to know is that family dynamics are systems. No single person is responsible for the system. It’s never the case that one parent is perfect and the other parent is terrible. There is always a system at work. This system is driven by the parents’ inborn temperament, childhood experiences, and mental health.
And these things, of course, were influenced by the family dynamics we encountered when we were children. Sometimes you might see a direct link, but we more often see flip-flopping. People who were raised by domineering parents may lack structure and boundaries with their own kids. And people who were emotionally neglected as kids may become overly emotionally involved with their own kids.
And of course if we have a partner/spouse, additional children, in-laws, step-kids, half-siblings, etc., all of them influence family dynamics. Each person in the family plays a role and has an influence.
While we can’t do much to change genetics or society, we can make changes within our family dynamics to support a child who is in recovery for an eating disorder. And that can be your goal. Because your child is an adult and must pursue recovery for themselves, but you can help by improving your relationship with them and the family dynamics so they feel safe and secure when coming home to you.
What you can do if your adult child has an eating disorder
There is no expiration date on parenting. Just because your child is an adult does not mean they don’t crave your love and admiration. They need it just as much as ever. If you are up to the challenge of supporting them through recovery, please take it on!
There are many things that are out of your control when your adult child has an eating disorder. But that does not make you powerless. Every parent has incredible influence over their child’s emotional health at any age.
1. Let go of what you cannot change
You will not be able to help your adult child heal from an eating disorder if you are living in the past, regretting things you did or did not do. It is also not helpful to dwell on the cause of the eating disorder. Nor does it help to obsess about the details of how it arose. Dwelling on the past will not help either of you move forward, so look ahead.
2. Learn about eating disorders
The thinking on eating disorders has come a long way in the last several decades. They are viewed as maladaptive coping mechanisms, and many people fully recover from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are treated a multi-disciplinary approach that includes psychotherapy and nutritional counseling. Learn about the triggers that your child may need to avoid during recovery, especially stress. Discover how deep eating disorders go – way beyond body size and food. Learn everything you can so that you better understand what your child is going through. Most people misunderstand eating disorders, so an informed and compassionate parent is incredibly powerful.
3. Work on yourself
Many of us live under the assumption that we only have two options for dealing with the tremendous pressure of being a parent: run ourselves ragged by trying to be perfect, or put our hands in the air (or heads in the sand) and feel powerless to do anything. Neither of these approaches will bring you closer to your child. They will not help your adult child who has an eating disorder recover. If you can, get some therapy or coaching. You don’t have to do a bunch of deep work on the past (unless you want to). A professional can help you navigate the here and now with more compassion and peace. This will help you be a better parent and build a stronger relationship with your child.
4. Let your child be an adult
Your child is an adult. It is time to let go of the idea that you have control over their life. You cannot “fix” your child or make everything better by the sheer force of your will. Moving back in and feeding your child may not be feasible or preferable for them. Your adult child needs to find a recovery path that makes sense for them. Be careful about over-investing emotionally and financially in your child’s recovery due to parental guilt. Of course you want to help your child. But you need to navigate this area very thoughtfully due to the emotions involved. Find a trusted professional who can help you navigate this path consciously and thoughtfully.
5. Let your child talk to you about the disorder and recovery
You may be very uncomfortable with your child’s eating disorder. But your ability to hear your child’s pain and listen without judgement will make a huge impact on their recovery. Many adults who are in recovery from an eating disorder are eager to talk about their experiences and feelings. But they find that other people don’t want to listen. It often feels as if everyone wants to “fix” them, but they just want to be heard. It will mean a lot to your adult child if you allow him or her to talk about their disorder and treatment without centering your own feelings about it.
You can do this!
Parenting an adult child who has an eating disorder is probably not what you thought you would be doing at this stage in your life. But parenting has no end date. You are still one of the (if not the single) most important relationships in your child’s life. This may be a crossroads for your relationship. If you are able to rise up to the challenge, your child, and your relationship, will be stronger for it.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.