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:
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, you should know that eating disorders rarely occur all by themselves. They are often accompanied by anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other disorders that are indicated by 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 genetic history.
We live in a diet culture. The thin ideal is touted in every medium, from billboards to magazines and social media accounts. We are told that thin bodies are healthier than fat bodies. It’s also asserted that we have the power to (and should) alter our bodies to meet the ideal. This is scientifically false.
Body diversity is a natural part of humanity, and as many as 98% of people who lose weight on a diet regain the weight plus more. But the diet industry is gigantic (+$60 Billion). It profits from our belief that we can and should shrink our bodies. Your child has been exposed to the thin ideal. They have been surrounded by messages about dieting to achieve the thin ideal their whole life. Societal pulls are powerful. No person is immune to them.
Even parents who are not victims of diet culture themselves raise kids in a diet-focused culture. It’s very challenging to raise kids who don’t have some level of body hate, disordered eating, or eating disorder.
How we parent our children when they are young – even the very first few months – can impact their emotional resiliency in life. We can’t escape the fact that we influence our children early in their lives. But that ship has sailed.
You can’t go back and re-parent your child as an infant, or even how you parented your teen. There’s no way to fix what you have already done. You did the best you could at the time. Beating yourself up about the past will only get in the way of parenting your child today.
There is no expiry 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. And if your adult child has an eating disorder, they need more love than ever. If you are up to the challenge, please take it on!
What you can do if your adult child has an eating disorder
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 large food-centric events. Learn about 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. You don’t have to do a bunch of deep work on the past (unless you want to). A therapist 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 his or her 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 him or herself. 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.
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 the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.