1. Let go of the person you hoped your child would be. We all have hopes for our children. Before they even begin breathing oxygen, we begin fantasizing about who they will be, how they will show up in the world, and the type of people they will be. As parents, this is totally normal, but it’s also something that we really need to consciously let go of. To truly love and support our children, we need to recognize them for exactly who they are – and who they are not.
A child who has an eating disorder is using fat and food as a way of protecting him or herself from a strong sense of worthlessness and “difference.” Many of us with eating disorders feel – from a very early age – that we are different from others. That we don’t fit in. That we are not “right.” When parents have lovingly but unknowingly created fantasies about who their children should be, they have accidentally contributed to this sense of difference.
As we support our children in recovery from an eating disorder, it is important that we actively and constantly let go of our fantasies and see our children for who they really are. It can be hard if you always dreamed of having a child who would follow in your footsteps, only to realize that your child is completely different from you. This is not work that happens overnight.
As parents, we must consistently step back from our children and remember that they are their own complete packages. We may have created their bodies with our genetic material (or not), but we absolutely are not responsible for the human beings they become.
2. Become an intentional communicator of acceptance. Communication is the number one challenge facing governments, companies, groups, and families. The reason for this is not that we don’t know how to communicate with each other; it’s that we don’t bring our full intelligence, consciousness, and attention to how, when and why we communicate. Instead, we just “go with the flow” and make assumptions that other people, especially those within our own families, will understand what we really mean.
The assumptions we make when communicating with the people we love can be deeply damaging. The damage we do is unintentional, but that doesn’t mean it should continue unchecked. Criticism, correction, and nit-picking all impact children on the level of their soul. We think we are being helpful or honest, when in fact we are accidentally making our children doubt their loveability and worthiness as people.
It’s OK though. Parents have incredible power to correct past mistakes in communication because all our children want from us is acceptance and love. When we apply conscious communication to our family relationships, and intentionally communicate acceptance and love, our children can quickly gain the confidence they need to recover from an eating disorder.
To do this, actively think about whether what you are saying to your child is honoring who he or she is as an individual. Are you communicating acceptance and love, or are you using communication to gain control and power? It’s OK to make mistakes here. But know that there is no value, and a lot of pain, in trying to control and gain power over our children, and language is often the single most powerful way we can learn to stop doing it.
3. Create a personal-care plan. Parents are under tremendous pressure every day. We exist in a society that provides very little support to us in the best of times. In the worst of times, such as when we have a child who has a problem, many of us can’t help but feel completely isolated and let down by the system.
We all talk about a village, but as our children grow into adolescence, our villages typically shrink to single digits. Our workplaces may understand if we need time off for a sick baby, but they tend to be less understanding when we have a teenager who has an eating disorder.
On top of being worried that we may **LOSE OUR JOBS!** while caring for our sick child, we are also struggling to maintain relationships with our spouses, other children, aging parents, and the few friends we have been able to hold onto. Oh, and don’t forget the costs involved in eating disorder treatment. Therapy isn’t cheap, and many of us pay out of pocket. And then there is the stigma of a mental illness and the misunderstanding about what an eating disorder is. There is very little understanding or compassion in our society for the struggles a parent who has a child with an eating disorder faces.
Because of this, parents must develop a personal care plan to ensure that we take care of our own needs during our child’s recovery from an eating disorder. Even as we take on more pressure while our child is healing, we must actively seek ways in which we can care for ourselves. Even simple things like personal hygiene can fall by the wayside as we care for a sick child, but we must find time to care for our own bodies and minds.
One of the best ways to do this is to seek a therapist or coach with whom you have a standing appointment to discuss what’s going on, how you feel about it, and what you can do to care for yourself even as you care for everyone else. Whatever you can swing, whether it’s just making sure you take a shower and a 5-minute break every day to focus on yourself or an hourly appointment once per week, do it. The care you are able to give will multiply if you provide yourself this attention.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.