Families can help their child recover fully from an eating disorder

4 Rules for Families When You Have a Child Who Has an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are often presented as persistent and intractable diseases that someone may live with forever. But that’s not true. Most eating disorders are 100% treatable, and when an entire family adjusts its behavior, the eating disorder can leave completely and without too much drama. This takes time, attention and focus, which is a small investment in the lifetime health of our children.

1. Don’t focus on the eating disorder

This may sound very, very strange, but many of us who have recovered from our eating disorders have not spent months thinking about the disorder. The more we tell our disorder to go away, the more stubborn it is about hanging on. The eating disorder is there for a reason, and only when it is heard can it recede.

Those of us who find full recovery gradually build our sense of community, our sense of self, and our sense of belonging. It is only when these elements are “fixed” that we understand that we can leave our eating disorder behind. When this happens, the eating disorder can “spontaneously” take its leave.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about the eating disorder, but you should recognize that there are many other critical things to talk about that will indirectly support your child’s recovery.

While at home, work on acceptance, family connections and building each other up actively and consciously. Families have much more important things to work on than the ins and outs of the eating disorder. You are not being passive about the eating disorder, but you are outsmarting it by understanding what lies beneath the maladaptive behavior. When we treat our eating disorder with kindness and compassion, we are able to free ourselves.

2. Build the family narrative

Families are built on stories. If we don’t consciously build the narrative of our family and the people within it, then each of us can become lost in dangerous storylines. Children who are hurting and resorting to maladaptive coping mechanisms like eating disorders are feeling lost and lonely. They do not know their place in the family.

Left to its own devices, a child’s narrative about the family may be something like: Dad works all the time, Mom is a nag, brother sits in his room and plays video games, and I’m just a loser. Don’t take this personally – it is just a sign that your child needs help building the family narrative out to include more positive aspects of the family dynamic.

As a family, you want to take time constantly, and consciously take time once per week, to build positive stories in the family that add color and life to each of you as characters and as a family unit. Powerful family stories follow the “hero’s journey” story arc, in which the “hero” family goes on an adventure, meets a crisis, wins a victory, and returns home changed or transformed. Family adventure stories can bind even the most divided families.

When artfully and intentionally crafted, family narratives help the family remember that good times often follow bad and that our difficult situations are often the ones in which we learn the most. You may already do some of this some of the time, but now you should take an active stance about building family stories. Engage every member of the family on story night.

3. Talk about feelings openly and regularly

Families that talk about feelings and model that feelings are acceptable and honorable can make a huge impact on a child’s eating disorder recovery. When feelings are suppressed, they fester and result in maladaptive coping behaviors. Families should actively practice feeling-telling every day with each other.

There are two essential ground rules for talking about feelings: 1) don’t blame other people for your feelings; 2) don’t deny someone else their feelings about something you did. For example, your child may have felt scared when Dad got mad. That’s OK. It happens. But the child needs to learn to say “I felt scared when Dad got angry,” instead of “Dad is scary.” The best thing Dad can do is say “It’s true that I got angry. I’m so sorry you felt scared.” This is the only acceptable response to a feeling statement.

Don’t be surprised if you have to practice this skill. It can be very hard to hear that we hurt someone we love, and we desperately want to defend ourselves or minimize their hurt so that we can feel better. But the point here is to accept all feelings non-defensively. This goes for everyone. If a daughter rolls her eyes at Mom, Mom can say “Ouch. I feel hurt when you roll your eyes at me.” The daughter will learn to say. “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes, Mom. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

There are many things we do naturally when someone tells us how they feel that have the side effect of teaching our children that feelings must be repressed. Repressed feelings are directly correlated with eating disorder behavior, and we must stop enabling the repression of feelings in order to help our child heal.

An important thing to know here is that our kids will only do this when they have seen their parents consistently do this. Only after parents have learned to accept feelings will the children do the same. Keep practicing. Have patience and faith. This really does work, and will positively impact the entire family.

4. Focus on the good

In a time of crisis, we tend to perseverate on feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger. These are all natural feelings. By all means, parents must find safe, healthy ways to talk about these feelings in the presence of other adults.

But when with our children, we must actively seek ways to highlight the goodness that exists in our homes. This doesn’t mean lying, but there are hundreds of small good things that likely happen every day that you don’t acknowledge.

The good things often lack drama and thus are less interesting to our brains. But they are a crucial component of healing. Thank people in your family every time they do something positive. This may feel silly at first, and you may even earn an eye roll when you begin practicing, but keep trying.

Even if it’s his chore, and even if you had to remind him to do it 10 times, thank your son every single time he takes out the trash. Even though she is supposed to do homework, and even though she started late because she was watching YouTube videos, recognize your daughter when she sits down to do her homework.

Yes, these are things our kids are supposed to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve praise when they do them. We often get into a rut with our families of noticing the negatives only. We all become worn down by the negatives and feel exhausted and bored by everything that goes wrong. We must actively and consciously counteract the negatives with positive comments.

This means not waiting until the final grade on a paper. It means noticing and positively reinforcing every time a child talks about, works on, or even complains about working on the paper. When we only focus on the result, we lose the opportunity to encourage our kids to work consistently and without major reward, which is what most of life is about.  

People who have eating disorders heal when given acceptance and love. When our families focus their energies on these two actions, a child can heal gracefully and completely from an eating disorder.

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