Five things to do when you find out that your adult child has an eating disorder

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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 our roof, but we were not aware, we may worry that we failed them somehow. How could we not know everything about our child? What did we fail to do to help them?

Even if your child didn’t develop the eating disorder until after they were living with you, you probably still feel deeply uncomfortable about how 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:

Genetics

Eating disorders have deep genetic roots. Many times, eating disorders run in families, and twin studies have discovered that 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 – see some similarities? Your child’s eating disorder is based on his or her foundational inborn temperament. You have absolutely no control over your child’s unique genetic inheritance.

Society

We live in a diet-centric culture. The thin ideal is touted in every medium, from billboards to magazines and social media accounts. Not only are thin bodies deemed “healthy,” but we are also told that we individually 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) and it profits from our belief that we can and should shrink our bodies. Your child has been exposed to the thin ideal and messages about dieting to achieve the thin ideal his or her whole life. Societal pulls are powerful. No person is immune to them.

Early parenting

It’s true that 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. You cannot fix what you did as a parent. You did the best you could at the time. Beating yourself up about the past will only get in the way of providing the parenting your adult child needs now to heal.

What you can do

There are many things that are out of your control when your adult child has an eating disorder: genetics, society and early parenting are all existing conditions over which you have no control. But that does not make you powerless! Every parent has incredible power 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 or the details of how it arose (unless your child suffered trauma, in which case, please suggest that he or she seek trauma-informed therapy). 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.
  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 as he or she undergoes treatment for an eating disorder. Your child is going to learn to metabolize feelings in a whole new way during recovery. The best thing you can do is learn emotional hygiene at the same time so that you can have meaningful conversations with your child as he or she heals.
  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. Your adult child needs to find a 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 has experience working with individuals who have eating disorders as well as experience working with families of adult children with eating disorders. An informed professional who will not benefit professionally or financially from your decisions can be a huge asset.
  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 his or her 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” us, but we just want to be heard. It will mean a lot to your adult child if you allow him or her to talk about the disorder and treatment without shame.

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