It can be hard to figure out how to be a “good” parent when a child has an eating disorder. Many worry they are not up to the task of supporting a child who is in recovery. The good news is that all parents are up to the task. The tough news is that it’s going to take a lot of effort on your part.
Luckily, the only core competency we need as parents is the ability to be curious and learn about parenting. Parents who bring their full intelligence and curiosity to parenting are more effective. They’re also able to play an integral role in their child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
Don’t worry about being perfect. Perfect parenting doesn’t exist. All you have to do is keep learning, and keep applying what you learn to the real-life laboratory of parenting. Being a good parent when your child has an eating disorder doesn’t have to be hard!
1. Consider and understand your child’s unique personality and experience
Almost all parents want to be good parents. It can be a real shock to find out they are in trouble and struggling with mental health disorders. An eating disorder can impact parents’ confidence and quickly make them insecure. Every past choice, every action, suddenly seems wrong in hindsight. It’s terrifying to see a child struggle with something as fundamental as eating. It’s normal to be completely confused by your child’s eating disorder.
But don’t stop there! It’s OK to be scared and worried. Now it’s time to turn your fear into action. Being a good parent when your child has an eating disorder starts with learning about eating disorders and your child. Eating disorders are complex and layered. So you need to research the causes of eating disorders and then apply them to your unique child’s temperament and life history.
Get professional help with this. Eating disorders are persistent and respond best to active, professional care combined with parental education and training.
When we approach our children from a place of curiosity, we support them as unique beings who are worthy of our respect and attention. We can help them identify the path they want to take. We can promote independence and self-reliance. All of these things help with eating disorder recovery.
An eating disorder is not a conscious choice or something over which we have control. Eating disorders lie deeply within us, and it is through self-discovery and self-acceptance that we find healing. Parents can positively support recovery when they seek to understand and accept their child who has an eating disorder.
Gaining a full view of a child’s personality and experience adds context to the eating disorder. It can help parents approach healing with more compassion and empathy.
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 a parent’s point of view, the 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. Being a good parent when your child has an eating disorder requires that you try to understand that point of view and the reasons behind it.
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.
Eating disorders don’t come out of nowhere. They are powerful coping mechanisms that developed for good reason. The more we understand the reason, the better we are able to support more adaptive coping methods.
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. Recovery comes from self-acceptance and belonging. Parents who accept and welcome their whole child, flaws, fears, disorders, and all, support true healing.
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 are 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 you are not a bad parent for occasional outbursts.
Parents who have a child with an eating disorder often find their lives turned upside down. They must desperately try to keep everything in balance while the child heals. It’s no surprise that parents snap during arguments with a child who is causing disruption. Being a good parent when your child has an eating disorder means you understand we are not always our best selves when parenting. But you should always repair negative exchanges as soon as possible.
The best time to repair a relationship is in the midst of an angry exchange. For example, if you notice that you are yelling at your child, getting defensive and threatening punishment, stop your behavior 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. A child who has an eating disorder is more sensitive to criticism and may feel especially triggered by parental 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 a 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, you may need to change long-standing traditions that repeat eating disorder behaviors or perpetuate diet culture.
You’ll also likely have to advocate for your child to navigate the insurance system. It may be a real struggle to continue treatment beyond what is deemed “medically necessary.” Many parents discover that insurance coverage runs out before their child is truly recovered.
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.
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 navigate difficult parenting situations.