When a child has an eating disorder, parents can feel under the microscope, and many of us worry that we are not up to the task of supporting a child who is in recovery. The good news is that we absolutely are up to the task.
The only core competency we need as parents is the ability to be curious and learn about parenting. As long as we remain curious, we are able to play an integral role in our child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
This is not about being picture perfect as a parent – this is about applying our full intelligence and compassion to parenting.
1. Consider and understand your child’s unique personality and experience
As parents, we want to be able to meet the needs of our children completely, and when we don’t understand something they are doing, such as if they are struggling with Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder or another type of eating disorder, we can panic. We may feel completely confused and wonder who our child actually is, and we may struggle to understand their motivations for doing what they are doing.
This can be terrifying, but it is actually an excellent reminder that our children are their own people. When we continue to expect our children to be dependent on us and obedient, we fail to allow them to find their own path in life.
Alternatively, when we approach our children from a place of curiosity, and try to understand them as unique beings who are worthy of our respect and attention, we can support them in identifying the path they want to take, promoting independence and self-reliance.
Our child’s eating disorder was not a conscious choice or something over which our child has control, but it does come from an essential part of our child. This means that if we reject the eating disorder outright, our children may feel we are rejecting them.
Gaining a full view of our children’s personalities and experiences can add context to the eating disorder, and can help us approach it with more compassion and empathy, which supports healing.
2. Strive to understand your child’s point of view
Too often, as parents we want to instruct our children in the ways of the world. We believe that our years of experience mean that we understand things in a way they cannot. This is true. We do understand things differently – this is what being an independent human being is. Each of us has our own point of view and perspective on life. And for all of us, perception is reality.
When our child is engaging in eating disorder behavior, we can easily perceive that there is no good reason for that behavior. From our point of view, our child should stop what they are doing and focus on more important things like school and work. But right now, eating, food and weight are the most important thing to your child, and until we can understand that point of view, we remain at war with our child’s most precious beliefs.
Rather than try to overcome your child’s arguments about the value of the eating disorder, work to understand your child’s point of view about the eating disorder. Ask questions and set your own opinions aside as you strive to listen without judgement.
You may worry that your child will take your lack of judgement as permission to continue the eating disorder. Don’t worry. Listening is not the same as agreeing. For your child to recover, she or he will have to find a personal, innate reason to recover.
Recovery needs to come from within, and needs to match our own point of view. Having a supportive listener is more likely to help your child find a way out of the eating disorder.
3. Repair negative exchanges
All of us have negative exchanges with our children. It may surprise (and irritate!) you to know that arguing with us is a big part of our role in our child’s development. When our children argue with us, they are testing boundaries and relationships in the safest way possible. They feel safe with us, and will therefore be more aggressive than they will be elsewhere.
Of course, this means that our kids can push our buttons and drive us to say and do things that we really shouldn’t. We get defensive or accusatory, perceiving ourselves as victims, which does not lead to good parenting. This is completely normal, and it’s OK.
Since we have a child with an eating disorder, our lives, already stressful, are now even more stressful. We are desperately trying to keep everything in balance while our child heals, and it’s no surprise that we snap during arguments. It’s not a problem that we are not always our best selves when parenting, but it is a mistake to not repair negative exchanges in which we have crossed a line.
The best time to repair a relationship is while it is happening. For example, if you notice that you are yelling at your child, getting defensive and threatening punishment, stop the action as soon as you can and acknowledge that things are not going well.
Sometimes this means saying something like “Wow, that was not the right thing to say. I’m so sorry. I’m feeling very angry right now, and I just don’t know what to do. Can we talk about this again in a few minutes when I’ve calmed down?”
If you are not able to catch yourself during an argument, it’s OK. You can still go back to your child after a fight and acknowledge that you made a mistake. It’s important here that you take responsibility for your own actions. Don’t say “You pushed me and I snapped!” Instead, say “I got really riled up and lost control. I’m sorry that I said those things to you.” Remember that you are not a victim, you are a parent. Take responsibility for your feelings. It’s OK.
Repairing negative interactions between yourself and your child is important during eating disorder recovery because a child who has an eating disorder is more sensitive to criticism and may feel triggered by conflict. As parents we cannot promise never to make mistakes while arguing with our children, but that’s OK.
Repair, it turns out, is very effective at returning a relationship to homeostasis. Repair efforts also show your child the process of acknowledging that emotions are taking over, and taking action to make things right. This can be very helpful behavior to observe while recovering from an eating disorder.
4. Advocate for your child’s needs
So far we have talked a lot about treating your child as an independent person who deserves respect and understanding. And that is all true. But we are still our child’s parents, and they still need us to advocate for them and support them. Even older adults seek support from their parents when things go wrong – it’s a fundamental desire to have your parents take care of you.
When your child has an eating disorder, you may need to advocate for a less intense school schedule during treatment. You may need to ask friends and family to change their behavior around your child during treatment, for example, changing long-standing food-based traditions may be necessary as your child heals. You’ll also likely have to advocate for your child to navigate the insurance system and throughout the treatment process to ensure the best possible approach.
In addition to the big advocacy needs, there are hundreds of small advocacy moments during eating disorder recovery. For example, your child may struggle in restaurants. At a family meal out, someone at the table or the waitstaff may make a well-meaning comment like “Hey! You didn’t eat much!” or “Wow! You must have been hungry!” Parents can demonstrate advocacy by immediately intervening to remove the focus from their child.
If part of the child’s eating disorder includes restricting certain foods, we need to advocate for appropriate meal choices until our child has recovered and is able to eat a more typical diet. The bottom line is that parental advocacy, big and small, makes our children feel precious and cared for.