It is never a good time to discover that your child has an eating disorder. But parents can feel a special type of despair and worry when they learn that their adult child has an eating disorder.
You may have worries like:
- Is this my fault?
- Should I have known about this?
- Why didn’t my child tell me sooner?
- What does this mean about my child’s future?
- Can my child ever recover?
All of these worries make a lot of sense. After all, your adult child is facing a major health problem. But there is so much hope, and you have a significant opportunity to help. In fact, there are parents who play a huge role in helping their kids recover – even if their kids are grown up! And yes, people do recover from eating disorders. You can help.
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 need your support. In fact, they need it just as much as ever. But this is a time to take on new opportunities for learning and growing as a parent and a person. If you are up to the challenge, 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. Here are the things I recommend parents do when an adult child has an eating disorder:
1. Learn about eating disorders
Eating disorders are biopsychosocial disorders. This means they are based on biological, psychological, and social factors. An important part of the social aspect is family of origin. This is why parents can be instrumental in helping a child recover from an eating disorder.
The more you can learn about eating disorders, the more you will be able to help your child. But here’s a little secret: it’s tempting, but don’t focus too much on food, eating and weight. Eating disorders are mental disorders, which means they are rooted in psychology and behavioral patterns. When you keep in mind that your child is facing distorted thoughts and maladaptive behaviors, you will behave differently than if you think it’s all about the food and weight.
Learn about the triggers that your child may need to avoid during recovery, especially stress. Support them in their recovery by understanding that they likely need to change aspects of how they behave with you and the rest of your family in order to recover. The more you can accept them through recovery, which may be messy, the greater your chance of maintaining a strong relationship beyond recovery.
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.
2. 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. And it also doesn’t help to defend yourself against any thoughts that the past wasn’t perfect. We all have regrets. We all have things we wish we hadn’t done or had done differently.
And an eating disorder is likely going to bring up the past for your family. While it’s important to try and understand your child’s eating disorder, don’t get too caught up in a single event, person, or situation that you blame for it. Eating disorders arise based on a combination of factors – it’s never just one thing.
Try to leave your memory of the past in soft focus and try instead to understand your child’s perspective of the past. What memories do they have, and how can you help them process their childhood? Be curious about their experience rather than trying to insist upon your view of what happened. Perspective is personal, so curiosity is always a better approach than trying to change someone’s mind.
Rather than focusing on the past, consider how you can learn and grow to become the parent your child needs you to be right now.
3. Don’t ignore the pain
Just because you can’t change the past doesn’t mean you ignore the past or refuse to talk about it. It’s very likely that your child will bring up some things about their childhood and your family that they believe contributed to the eating disorder. You can help your child find peace and healing by not being afraid to have hard conversations about pain.
You cannot change the past, but there is some healing to be found in looking at it together with the goal of understanding and soothing old hurts. Pain that is ignored doesn’t go away. And time does not heal wounds. Wounds are healed when they are actively and intentionally cared for, and that includes being willing to look at how the past may still be impacting your child today.
Try to set defensiveness aside and be vulnerable to your child’s unique experience of growing up with you as a parent. If you can face their pain with compassion and stay in your role as their parent, they will be more likely to turn to you for support during their recovery. If you cut them off or ignore their pain, they are unlikely to seek your support.
4. 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. Your child will have to change in order to enter full recovery, so it’s best if you have someone who can help you navigate that change with grace and compassion for everyone.
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.
5. 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.
6. 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. They are learning new ways to be with themselves and others. Eating disorder recovery is both exciting and terrifying, and it helps to talk about it with friends and family.
But they often find that other people don’t want to listen. It often feels as if everyone wants to “fix” them or they want them to get better. But many times friends and family find it too scary to hear about what’s really going on. This can leave the person feeling isolated and alone, which can lead to relapse.
It will mean a lot to your adult child if you allow them to talk about their disorder and treatment. Just remember to keep your focus on them and their experience, and process your own feelings about it with someone else.
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.
Here are some more things to consider when thinking about your adult child’s 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 identical twins raised separately may 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 just one of many ways that people with certain genetic patterns learn to process emotions.
Eating disorders are called “biopsychosocial” disorders, which means they combine biological (genetic), psychological, and social elements.
You simply can’t divorce 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.
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.