The holidays bring so much joy and laughter and wonderful gifts … at least, that’s what they are supposed to bring.
But for many of us, eating disorders darken the holiday spirit, adding stress, concern and a sense of deep unease. If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then it’s very possible that you are at a loss this year, and feel confused about how to celebrate the holiday.
The gift every family deserves
There is one gift that every family facing a member or members who have eating disorders should get: family therapy. Sure, it’s not something that you can put in a box, but it is something that will pay off for decades.
While many people understand that when a child has an eating disorder, therapy is a critical element of healing the individual, many of us don’t recognize that eating disorders often expose deep roots of discontent in our families that will continue to fester if we don’t address them.
More importantly, however, while the eating disorder is a very obvious and identifiable problem, the fact that it exists in your family likely means that every member of the family is suffering in some way, and now is the perfect time to shine a light on the family’s health.
This does not mean that your family is messed up or broken. It just means that you have the opportunity with the eating disorder to recognize the thing that many families do not understand until it is too late: love takes work.
Building a family is not easy
Do you think that building a happy family should be easy and natural? Do you think that parenting children should be a piece of cake? Do you believe that you are an excellent parent, but that your child who has an eating disorder is an anomaly and the disorder came from something wrong inside him or her, and that there is nothing about your family environment that should change in light of the diagnosis?
It may feel deeply uncomfortable, but none of these ideas is true. Loving our children may be innate, but the giving of love and raising of children is not easy. If all we do is sit back and assure ourselves that our love-giving is just fine and requires no active work, then we are missing a huge opportunity to parent in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Sure, we can be “fine” parents with this approach, but to be a great parent, and to help our children and our long-term family cohesion, we need to work our butts off to get better at giving love.
Learning to give better love
It’s is one of our greatest tragedies that we believe that innate love is enough, and that we shouldn’t push ourselves every day to learn to give better love to the people who matter most to us.
Learning to give better love is slightly different for every family, but it includes the following elements:
- Accepting the people you love for who they are as individuals (not as an extension of yourself)
- Appreciating the people you love by specifically naming specific actions, traits and behaviors that you believe are positive on a daily basis
- Acknowledging mistakes that you have made and taking action to learn more and improve your parenting
- Listening without defensiveness
- Educating yourself about the psychology of parenting
- Actively building a sense of belonging and group identity in your family
- Allowing the people you love to give you love (don’t be a martyr!)
No parent is perfect at any of these things. The most masterful parents recognize that there is no end to the things we can learn to improve our parenting skills and our ability to give love.
Family therapy and the family unit
This is why family therapy is the gift you need to give your family this year. A good family therapist will help you work together as a family to learn crucial listening, acceptance, and love-giving skills.
Family therapy focuses on the family unit. The goal is never to blame any individual for bad behavior, but to openly acknowledge how the family works together and areas in which each individual can grow to become better at giving love to everyone.
Sometimes the focus will be on parental behaviors, sometimes on the children’s behaviors, but it will be evenly assigned to ensure that the group develops as a whole. The family therapist will model effective communication and support everyone in learning to ask for what they need. Because the key to giving good love is learning how to ask for and accept love for ourselves.
Family therapy can be painful at times, but it can also transform your entire family dynamic and build a stronger connection between everyone involved. The key, of course, is to approach family therapy with an open mind and an open heart, and be willing to be vulnerable. We must approach family therapy as a student rather than a master.
You’re not there to fix the eating disorder
When you go to family therapy, it is important to set aside the idea that the goal is to “fix” your child who has an eating disorder. Family therapy is about the whole family, not the eating disorder.
Hopefully your child is in the care of a trained professional who has the skills necessary to work on the eating disorder itself. While you are in family therapy, your focus is on everyone in the room.
Most of the gifts we give this holiday will be forgotten in a few months, but the gift of family therapy will last a lifetime.