When your child has an eating disorder, it can feel as if your world has been turned upside down. Your child’s eating disorder is a signal that an internal struggle is taking place, and your parenting can make a huge impact on your child’s recovery. Eating disorders are based on a complex ecosystem of factors that come together. This ecosystem needs to be healed in as many ways as possible to ensure a full recovery for your child. Here are some steps to take to keep you zen when your child has an eating disorder.
Take some time to grieve
Most parents who have a child who has an eating disorder are blindsided. They never saw the disorder coming, and were living under the belief that their child was healthy and doing well. Eating disorders are sneaky in this way. Most people who have eating disorders quickly learn how to hide their symptoms from the people they love.
Give yourself some time to grieve the child you thought you had – the healthy, happy, smiling child of your fantasies. Our children are much more complex than most of us realize, and their shadow sides are an integral part of their unique lived experience.
Part of the recovery process involves your child building their identity, so your illusions of the “perfect child” simply must die in order for them to heal. You can mourn the child you thought you had as long as you respectfully accept that your real child is an individual, and they may surprise you as they grow into themselves during recovery.
Establish realistic time frames
Most people think of recovery in terms of abstinence. For example, we all know about alcoholics, who are “in recovery” as long as they abstain from drinking alcohol. But remember that many alcoholics continue attending AA meetings for life. This is because abstinence is only the very beginning stage of recovery.
Once we achieve abstinence from our eating disorder behavior, we must then unpack the beliefs – most of which are deeply subconscious – that drove us to adopt an eating disorder. This part of recovery takes time. It involves learning to accept our bodies no matter how they look, which is hard in a society that constantly tells us that we must all look a certain way. Recovery also involves learning to accept our personal desires and preferences without shielding the world from our true selves.
Your child may achieve abstinence very quickly, but it’s important for you to not stop treatment or stop making changes to their environment once abstinence is achieved because abstinence is not the same as recovery. The longer your child had an eating disorder, the longer it will take to recover. Give this process time. Don’t rush it.
The reason people keep going to AA meetings is because they value the ongoing support from people who join them in bucking social norms (there is a lot of pressure to drink in our society, just as there is incredible pressure to be thin), and crave a community in which they feel they truly belong. Think of how you may be able to provide some of these elements in your home to support your child’s recovery.
Take time to reflect
Almost every parent who has a child who has an eating disorder feels some degree of guilt. At the same time, parents can be most helpful when they approach recovery with calm confidence. Nothing ruins a parent’s confidence like crippling guilt.
Take time to reflect on your parenting, both the things you are proud of and the things you wish you could change. We all have things we would like to change. Learn the art of self-compassion, which will help you process the pain and guilt that comes with parenting without shutting down or turning against yourself.
Recovery from an eating disorder requires a person to be assertive with their needs, and this can be hard for the people who love them. You may feel as if your child’s personality is changing, and it is – it must change in order for them to heal. Reflect on how these changes are making you feel, and allow yourself time and space to process how your child’s emerging self impacts your own sense of self as a parent.
If you can, spend some time with a therapist who can provide you with compassionate reflection while you process your feelings in relation to your child’s eating disorder. It may feel as if feeling your feelings will break you apart, but our feelings only hurt us when we lock them inside. Allow them into the light, and you will find freedom and peace, no matter what your child’s recovery looks like.
Appreciate small wins
Eating disorder recovery is not linear. Many people who have eating disorders find their way in a process that can look a bit like “two steps forward, one step back.” Parents must try to maintain confidence and hope that recovery is happening even when it looks like things are getting worse.
For example, part of recovery involves feeling painful feelings and having thoughts that we previously blocked out with our eating disorder behaviors. It is very healthy for us to feel the feelings and have the thoughts, but it may be painful for you to watch this happening. A child in recovery may withdraw from you while processing childhood traumas or may rage at you, saying angry and hurtful things while practicing new skills like assertiveness.
While you are not expected to endure abuse, try to allow your child greater emotional expression during recovery – it will help the healing process. Work with your child’s therapist so that you can better understand their stage in recovery and how best you can respond to the emotional upheaval that comes along with healing.
Appreciate the small wins that come along, even if it’s as simple as a meal enjoyed together, a pleasant afternoon as a family, or your child’s improved performance at school or work. It’s a messy process, so celebrate whatever moments you can, and try not to dampen your joy by thinking about what could go wrong next. Live in the moment, and savor the good times so that you will be better able to tolerate the hard times.
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 handle their kids’ food and body issues.