No parent wants to see their child suffer. When our children have eating disorders, we can feel helpless, frustrated and even angry. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that require multi-faceted treatment. This treatment can be expensive, lengthy and, at times, appear not to be working. And many times parents feel they must just sit by, watching and waiting, paying and paying, while hoping their child will get better.
Get help and support
Some parents have found that a child’s eating disorder illuminates their own struggles with dieting, body image, perfectionism, depression, and anxiety. All of these are elements of disordered eating, and almost every person in our society today struggles with at least one of these challenges.
If you’re interested in therapy, find yourself a therapist who can help you process the emotions that come up during your child’s treatment. There are two primary types of therapy: psychodynamic and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Psychodynamic therapy is what we typically think of with therapy – it involves going back in time to look at underlying components of disordered thought patterns.
CBT, on the other hand, tends to focus more on managing the symptoms of disordered thought patterns by learning mindfulness-based tools.
Another option is to hire a life coach who can be your partner as you work on the day-to-day challenges of living with a child who has an eating disorder.
Whichever route you choose, getting professional support for your own emotions during your child’s treatment can make a significant impact on your ability to effectively help your child heal from an eating disorder.
Go easy on yourself
While your child is undergoing treatment for an eating disorder, you will be experiencing significant personal stress. Physically, you will likely be working hard to get your child to treatment sessions, as well as finding ways to be more physically present with your child while at home.
Emotionally, your child will be processing a lot of disordered thoughts. Parents are on the front line for receiving these disordered thoughts, and there is no doubt that they can be deeply upsetting. Some children will use blame and attack against a parent as a coping mechanism for their own disordered thoughts.
Financially, you are likely putting out significant money in order to pay for eating disorder treatment, which is chronically under-reimbursed in the medical insurance setting. While insurance may cover the most extreme cases of illness in which a child needs to be hospitalized and medically stabilized, they rarely cover the ongoing costs required to actually heal the mental side of the disorder.
The bottom line is that you are under a tremendous amount of stress right now. Go easy on yourself whenever you can. Find a friend who is a good listener, and share coffee or a walk when you need some support.
You may find that you need more sleep than usual. Go to bed earlier and wake up later if you can. Even consider naps when needed. If you feel tired and there is any way that you can sleep, do it. Your brain needs to recharge even more than usual during stressful periods.
Be sure that you are nourishing your own mind and body even as you try to help your child learn to nourish themselves. Don’t forget to eat regularly, and drop your own attempts to control your weight or body shape. Move your body if it feels good, but don’t push yourself right now.
Don’t be afraid to be involved in treatment
Many parents have told stories about therapists who explicitly tell them to “stay out of it” and others who subtly suggest that the parents have “already done enough damage,” and have nothing positive to add to treatment.
This attitude is deeply damaging to parents who are desperate to have healthy children, and it does not support full recovery from an eating disorder. Parents are often crucial to the healing process, even if their child is an adult living outside the home.
Talk to your child and your child’s treatment team to determine the best way for you to stay involved and support the healing process.
Don’t feel guilty
Many people who have eating disorders can link certain triggers to the parenting they received. While this can feel overwhelming to a parent, it is important to know that a qualified therapist can work with you and your child to pursue healing – not blame – in response to any mistakes parents made during their child’s development.
We all make mistakes. No parent is perfect, and parents cannot be held solely responsible for any child’s eating disorder. Feeling guilty will not help you support your child’s healing process.
Work with your child’s therapist to determine the best way to handle the process of forgiveness on both sides.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.