When your child has an eating disorder, it may feel as if there isn’t much you can do to help the healing process. Your child hopefully has a therapist who is working regularly to help treat the eating disorder, but you may be surprised by how active you can be in the healing process. Just like when your child was an infant and you had to learn techniques for feeding, bathing and soothing, as your child goes through eating disorder treatment, you can learn new tools to support the recovery process.
Keep track of triggers
A trigger is something that causes an internal switch to go off in our heads, telling us to rely on our eating disorder behavior RIGHT NOW! Triggers are not always obvious, mainly because we don’t often know what they are without careful attention. Typically, in the early stages of recovery, we go into our eating disorder behavior before we even consider what triggered it.
A parent can help a child heal from an eating disorder by keeping an open dialogue about eating disorder behaviors, and asking the child to think back 10, 15, or 30 minutes before the behavior to determine whether there was anything that might have triggered the behavior.
For example, if you have a child who is struggling with binge eating, you can talk about a binge on cookies. Your child may remember that right before the binge, a friend criticized something important. The comment itself is actually less important than the way it made your child feel. Did they feel ashamed, angry, sad? Talk about how those feelings can trigger binge eating. The same goes for restriction, but the behavior example may be that your child skipped a meal or snack, or struggled to eat according to the prescribed meal plan.
Look for the purpose
Many of us who have eating disorders are using them as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings. Rather than attack the food and eating behavior, it can be very useful to look at the purpose the eating disorder is serving in our lives, and address that need.
A parent can help a child heal from an eating disorder by discussing how food and eating can be a metaphor for a deeper need. Talk openly and frequently about how food and eating makes your child feel, and listen closely for themes and metaphors that may help you to understand the purpose of the eating disorder in your child’s life.
For example, if you have a child who is restricting food by focusing on animal rights, and has become a vegetarian or vegan, you can talk about what that means and why it is important. Is it possible that the idea of kindness to animals – who are seen as weak and vulnerable – means that your child needs more kindness in life? Could it mean that your child is feeling weak and in need of protection? It is possible that your child is using food and eating behavior to communicate this very deep need. The food choice serves the purpose of being a communication tool when no other method seems possible.
Practice emotional processing
The ability to starve ourselves, eat beyond comfort, and purge, requires that we have the ability to disconnect from our bodies. When we have an eating disorder, our emotions tend to get stuck in our heads. Instead of processing them naturally through our body and letting them go, we become increasingly afraid of feelings and avoid feeling them in our bodies. This can result in an unhealthy disconnection from the body, which supports eating disorder behavior.
A parent can help a child heal from an eating disorder by helping their child practice whole-body emotional processing. This is a difficult practice in a society that values emotional conformity and repression. Even people who we consider to have “big personalities” typically still fit into some mold we have of what is “acceptable.” But truly processing emotions body-wide can be a scary, intense thing for someone who has an eating disorder so your child will need a lot of support.
For example, if you have a child who binge eats, you may talk to them about how it feels when they binge eat. It may surprise you to know that many times a binge eater completely disconnects from bodily sensations, and focuses only on a head-based process of stuffing food into the mouth. Once it’s in the mouth, and while it’s in the stomach, the binge eater often does not feel it. This is how we can eat so much compared to someone who is connected to their body.
Talk to your child about the feelings that come up before the binge episode, and the lack of feelings during the binge. And, of course, after a binge, most of us feel intense shame. Help your child accept the pre- and post-binge feelings and visually work them down through the body – from the head to the belly, to the hips and out through the feet. Remind your child to breathe deeply and visualize the feelings making the trip through their bodies. Notice where the feelings get stuck, and where they flow freely.
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.