If your child has an eating disorder, you may feel overwhelmed by all the new information coming at you. Parents who have children who have eating disorders have a lot to process, and none of it is easy work.
Parents often look back at what they did or did not do that may or may not have contributed to their child’s eating disorder. Our children grow up in an ecosystem, and we are an essential part of that ecosystem. So yes, there are always things we could have done better in our children’s lives. But regardless of what we have done in the past, we cannot change it. We have absolutely zero power over anything that has already happened. All we can do it look in the mirror and decide what we want to do next.
Luckily, there are a lot of things we can learn to do to become better parents. Our runway for learning is endless, but each step we take, no matter how small it may seem, can make a huge difference to our children. None of us will even be a perfect parent, but our children don’t need that from us. They just need us to show up, each and every day, willing to learn something new about how we can be the parents our children need.
Here are four things that you should stop doing immediately if you have a child with an eating disorder. Actually, scratch that … you should stop doing these things regardless of whether your child has an eating disorder.
1. Stop hating your body
Hating your body is not going to make it thinner or better. Hating your body is not going to make you a better person, a better parent, or better at anything other than being thinner than you are now.
Hating your body will, however, pass along dangerous cultural beliefs about a person’s worth as it relates to their physical appearance. When your child has an eating disorder, they are overly concerned with the way they look. This obsession is rooted in the false belief that they are not inherently worthy, but can gain worth by appearing more attractive based on meeting perceived societal expectations. To help your child recover from an eating disorder, you need to look closely at your own bias about body size, and stop hating your body.
Your child is watching you when you pinch your belly and grimace. They are listening when you complain to your friend that you gained 5 lbs. They notice when you push your food away or eat too much and then run to the gym to “work it off.” All of these socially accepted behaviors are also eating disorder behaviors, which is why you need to stop.
Do whatever it takes to stop hating your own body – if you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for the children who are watching and learning from you.
2. Stop talking about other people’s bodies
It is culturally acceptable for us to take note of other people’s bodies all the time. This applies to both positive (you look great! Did you lose weight?) and negative (she’s really let herself go!) statements.
When your child has an eating disorder, they are struggling with constant inner judgement about how they appear to others. This internal judgement echoes conversations about what they have heard said about other people’s bodies, and so, as parents, we must curb our instinct to talk about other people’s bodies.
Your child needs to believe that they are worthy regardless of their body size. Eating disorder recovery often results in weight fluctuation as the body finds a new homeostasis. Your child must feel loved in their body – regardless of its size – in order to recover. You can help increase their safety by not ever commenting on anybody’s body ever again.
Do not say “Wow, she really let herself go – she’s gained so much weight since I last saw her.”
Do not say “Wow, she really lost a lot of weight since I last saw her – she looks great!”
Neither of these statements, and absolutely no statement pertaining to another person’s weight is any of your business. Other people’s bodies is not an acceptable topic of discussion. Even if it feels like a statement of fact or a compliment, just don’t do it.
3. Stop giving food or drink as a reward or consolation
When your kid is sad, or happy, or did something great, or did something embarrassing, the first thing you want to do is reward or soothe them. And the easiest, fastest form of celebration and soothing is to give them something sweet and delicious. When you say “Awww, Sweetie, I’m so sorry you didn’t get the part in the play – let’s go get ice cream!” You don’t mean to do anything wrong – quite the opposite – you are trying to repair her hurt feelings. But training your children to process their feelings with calories is a maladaptive behavior that is hard to overcome later in life, and can lead to all sorts of disordered eating behaviors.
If your child has an eating disorder, part of their recovery involves learning to process emotions without using behaviors such as eating, starving, drinking, or any other compulsive behavior (including shopping, exercise, self-harm, drug use, etc.). This is critical to understand. When we have an eating disorder, the problem is not food, but the way we use food as a way to avoid feeling our feelings. To recover, we must learn that feeling feelings is completely safe and absolutely necessary.
As parents, we must support our kids’ recovery from an eating disorder by avoiding behavior-based coping mechanisms like eating or shopping, and instead sit with our child and help them process their emotions in real time.
Got the lead part in a play? Congratulations! I’m so proud of you. Let’s enjoy this moment together as a family and celebrate the effort you put into your audition.
Friends being mean? I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m here for you. Would it help to tell me how you feel?
Don’t reach for quick fixes or ways to solve the problem. Just help your child sit with their feelings and notice that feelings are not deadly, and they always pass once we allow them to exist.
4. Stop being afraid of feelings
All that stuff we just said about your child needing to learn to feel feelings will be a lot easier if you learn to feel your feelings, too. Very few of us grow up in an environment in which it is safe to express all feelings, good and bad. Most of us learn to repress essential parts of our selves in order to succeed within our family of origin.
When a child has an eating disorder, it is a signal that they have been repressing their true self by avoiding authentic feelings. Instead of feeling their feelings, they are avoiding feelings with eating behaviors. To recover from an eating disorder, we must learn to process our feelings, which involves emotional literacy – being able to name different feelings, and emotional maturity – being able to tolerate our own feelings and those of other people.
Every single person in your family will benefit from learning emotional literacy and emotional maturity. Parents have tremendous power and influence to change the entire family’s emotional maturity by working on themselves. You can begin by learning to identify and name your feelings and holding safe space in which you can process them.
Advanced work involves learning to help your children identify and name their feelings and holding a safe space so that they can express their feelings without fear of rejection, judgement, or defensiveness. The best way for many of us to learn these difficult skills is to work with a therapist, because they are trained to guide us and model these behaviors. Just a few months of therapy can do wonders for your emotional maturity.
The more you learn to identify your feelings and express them in adaptive ways, the better you will be able to support your child who has an eating disorder as they learn these very same skills.
This can be scary work, but you are absolutely up to the task. Remember, even small steps, taken consistently, can make a huge difference in our children’s lives.
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.