It can be hard to figure out how to be a “good” parent when an adult child has an eating disorder. Many parents worry they are not up to the task of supporting an adult 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 when an adult child enters 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!
Here are some ways you can be a good parent when your adult child has an eating disorder:
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 your child has control. Recovery and healing come from self-acceptance. Parents can positively support recovery when they seek to understand and accept their child with 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 means 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 adult 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 judgment.
Eating disorders don’t come out of nowhere. They are powerful coping mechanisms that developed for good reason. The more we understand the reasons, the better we are able to support more adaptive coping methods.
You may worry that your child will take your lack of judgment 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?”
Give these printable worksheets to grow more confident, calm and resilient and feel better, fast!
- Calming strategies
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 peace and safety. 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.
As you parent your adult child with an eating disorder, please remember that you matter, too. Take good care of yourself in this tough time.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.