When you have an eating disorder … and your child does, too

With tentacles impacting us on emotional and physical levels, eating disorders are complex and tenacious. You may have struggled with an eating disorder for decades, or been in recovery for decades, or are just now recognizing your disordered eating patterns, but whatever your stage in eating disorder recovery, having a child who is also struggling makes the situation even more complex.

But the good news is that eating disorders – both your own and your child’s – can be fully overcome. With the right approach, you can accelerate both of your recoveries if you approach recovery as a family effort rather than an individual fight. Here are some tips:

Talk to the pros

You probably have a lot of complex feelings surrounding being a parent who has an eating disorder and who is parenting a child who has an eating disorder. You may be feeling shame, fear, and guilt. It would be completely normal to worry that you somehow caused your child’s eating disorder or that your child “caught” it from you. You must carefully navigate the fact that these feelings can be deeply triggering for your own eating disorder.

Talk openly and often with your therapist about how to parent while you are in treatment for an eating disorder. You need to make time for self-care even as you care for your family. The longer you have had your eating disorder, the longer your treatment may take.

Stabilizing your behaviors may seem like the biggest challenge, but lasting recovery is about learning emotional tools and practicing them over time, in the face of new stressors. Your therapist will recognize that your child’s condition is one of the greatest stressors you can face, and will support you in managing this process.

Meanwhile, talk to your child’s therapy team about how your own disorder may interact with your child’s eating disorder. This situation is not as unusual or difficult as it may seem to you – many of us with eating disorders have children who develop their own unique form of disordered eating.

The professionals who are working with your child will not be shocked or blame you. They will actually be relieved that you are aware and open about your own disorder rather than remaining unaware of it.

They will be compassionate and understanding, and can truly help make the process easier for everyone. Just keep the communication lines open with treatment teams on both sides of the equation to ensure you are both being treated properly.

Heal yourself

Healing from an eating disorder is not just about weight or food. It’s much more about learning to care for yourself assertively even as you provide care to others. It is not unusual when a child develops an eating disorder for parents to become singularly focused on that child’s healing process, often sacrificing their own needs in the process. This isn’t healthy for anyone, but it is especially dangerous if you have an eating disorder of your own, as it could trigger dangerous behaviors.

We must heal ourselves even as we focus on being the best parent we possibly can. Trust the experts when they assure you that you should heal yourself to help your child fully heal. This isn’t because your child’s eating disorder is your fault. It’s because there is no better model for a child who has an eating disorder than watching a parent become whole and lovingly assertive about their own needs.

If you’ve been putting off your own treatment to support everything else that’s going on in your life, then stop. You need to prioritize your recovery and get the love you need in order to give the love your whole family needs right now. There is simply no way around it. So get the help you need, ask for more help than you think you need, and devote yourself to your recovery process.

Don’t make assumptions about your child’s eating disorder based on your own eating disorder

Even though you have your own eating disorder, it is important to bring openness to your child’s eating disorder treatment. That means you should not make assumptions about what your child is doing or feeling and you should not interfere with treatment plans unless you have carefully evaluated your motivations for doing so.

None of us experience an eating disorder in exactly the same way. Every person creates their own version of an eating disorder, so even if you and your child have the same DSM diagnosis (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder), it does not mean that your child is behaving or feeling the same way you do/did.

Just because you and your child both have an eating disorder does not mean that you are an expert on the eating disorder they are experiencing. You are also not likely the best person to criticize their treatment without being extremely conscious of the process. That does not mean you should stay out of it, but you should be cautious and check your assumptions before making any major changes to something that your child’s treatment team has suggested.

Remember to keep the communications line wide open, and work with your own therapist to better understand how you can be a parent in recovery who is also able to navigate the recovery system for a child.

Practice assertively expressing emotions at home

While we all use our eating disorders slightly differently, many of us use them as a way to communicate something with our body that we are unable to communicate with words. Every person in recovery from an eating disorder needs to build their emotional vocabulary and build skills in communicating emotion assertively.

Your whole family should be a part of this skill-building activity, whether they have an eating disorder or not. Work on emotional vocabulary and expression, expanding both the number of words you use to define emotional states and the number of times you express how you feel at any given moment.

This will be a rocky path. Very few people are used to expressing emotion and thus do it very awkwardly and aggressively in the beginning. This awkward, aggressive stage is exactly why healing can be accelerated in a home when everyone is on board. It can be really helpful to remind everyone that you’re all learning how to talk about these things, and that awkward, aggressive expression does not mean that the emotion is wrong, just that you are all learning how to express emotion.

Building this skill into your family could be the single most important aspect of full recovery for both you and your child. As you all learn to talk about how you feel, emotions don’t need to be ignored (restriction), stuffed down (binging) or eliminated (purging).

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