Eating disorders are terrifying for parents for many reasons. Not only are they physically and emotionally harmful for the child, but they also carry tremendous stigma and misunderstanding for parents.
Parents who have children who have eating disorders may feel angry, stressed, tired, and obsessed with their child’s recovery. These are signs of traumatic stress that can lead to significant behavioral and emotional impacts. The tension you carry as the parent of a child who has an eating disorder is serious, and it must be addressed.
Numerous studies have shown that parents who have seriously ill children often suffer significant distress, and many experience clinically significant levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms. These symptoms can impact a parent’s long-term mental health, family functioning and the child’s recovery. (NIH, 2015)
Signs of traumatic stress
Some signs that you may be developing trauma in response to your child’s eating disorder include:
1. You feel personally attacked and vulnerable when you see care providers and feel that they are judging and blaming you for your child’s condition.
2. You hide your child’s condition from certain close friends and family members because you can’t talk about it without becoming emotional.
3. You find yourself obsessing about your child’s prognosis are constantly trying to guide and control your child’s behavior to drive recovery.
4. You consider yourself responsible for your child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
5. If someone makes a comment or asks a question that implies to you that you are responsible for your child’s eating disorder, you fly into a defensive rage or abruptly stonewall them.
6. You find yourself worn out and unable to function as you used to. For example you may make more mistakes at work, be late to and forget about important meetings, and forget to pay bills.
7. You may not attend to personal hygiene and personal care as you used to.
8. You may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drinking, eating too much or too little, taking sleeping pills, and compulsive shopping.
9. You find yourself withdrawing from people with whom you used to be close.
10. You experience mood swings from extreme “doing” and action, to extreme withdrawal and depression.
11. You are sleeping more or sleeping less than you used to.
12. You sometimes feel rage and anger while participating in your child’s eating disorder recovery, for example, while driving them to and from appointments, participating in family therapy, monitoring their behavior, etc. You may feel ashamed of this anger and judge yourself for feeling it.
Parents need oxygen, too
These are signs that you may be suffering trauma in response to your child’s eating disorder diagnosis. Parents can and should be involved in their child’s recovery from an eating disorder, however, if the recovery process is bringing out these symptoms for you, then you should immediately seek counseling and support for your own feelings and experience.
Just like on the airplane, we must put on our own oxygen masks before we attend to other people. This is because we can help more people more effectively if we help ourselves first. If a parent is experiencing trauma during their child’s eating disorder treatment, they are in personal danger and are also not as effective as they could be. Seeking help for yourself is critical.
The first step in helping yourself during your child’s recovery from an eating disorder is to accept that your situation sucks and get help for yourself. This is not to take away your child’s experience or your involvement in their treatment – this is merely to make sure that you are being treated for your own trauma.
Most parents who have children who have eating disorders cycle through the five stages of grief: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. These stages are natural and normal for parents who have a child who has any critical illness, including an eating disorder. It is perfectly healthy for you to go through these stages. Get support so that you can recognize which stage you are in and accept yourself at every stage.
With support, you will hopefully achieve acceptance of your child’s eating disorder. This does not mean approval or resignation. It simply means you are able to accept the fact that you have feelings about your child’s eating disorder. When we process feelings with acceptance, they pass with less pain and suffering and are less likely to lead to trauma symptoms.
Make some personal goals
This may surprise you, especially if you have put all of your own goals on hold until your child is recovered. However, you must maintain your sense of self and personal freedom even as you help your child. The martyr approach to parenting is just like trying to put on everyone’s oxygen masks before you put on your own. You are less effective and lose your own ability to function and help them. We must help ourselves in order to help others.
First, notice whether your goals include “make sure that my child recovers from their eating disorder,” and take that off the list. You are not responsible for your child’s recovery. Of course, you are a critical part of recovery, but no parent can force a child’s recovery – it must come from within. You can show up and facilitate the recovery process, but you cannot make yourself responsible for recovery itself. That must remain in your child’s control.
Avoid tunnel vision
To avoid the tunnel vision that can happen to a parent facing a child in crisis, make some short and long-term goals for yourself. Short term goals may include your self-care and hygiene activities. This should include rest and relaxation, and time spent doing things that make you feel energized and happy. You do not need to remain in a prison of unhappiness as long as your child is in recovery. You are allowed to have fun and enjoy your life.
Longer-term goals may include planning for a vacation, learning a new skill, or working with a therapist on your own childhood trauma, addictions, depression, anxiety, or other emotional conditions. You may feel guilty about doing these things, but rest assured that it is absolutely necessary for you to invest in yourself at the same time as you invest in your child’s recovery.
If you like podcasts, listen to the ED Parenting podcast episode 25: Mom’s burned out
Give it time
When our child faces a health crisis, it’s natural to go into fight or flight mode – in other words, we panic. This is completely normal, but since eating disorders can take time to resolve, we cannot remain in a state of panic throughout recovery. It’s simply not sustainable.
You should know that most people can and do recover from their eating disorders. Many even recover “spontaneously” without direct treatment. Yes, eating disorders are very serious, and we must take recovery seriously, but also keep things in perspective as much as possible.
If possible, enroll your child in an appropriate care program. And do everything you can to learn about eating disorders and to create an environment of healing for your child. But you also need to have some patience with the process and give your child the time and space to heal. Eating disorders are complex and layered disorders, which means it usually takes time to unpack and treat the underlying conditions. Recovery is usually a marathon (with a lot of detours), not a race. Prepare accordingly.
This is an excellent time to learn and practice mindfulness. A mindfulness practice can help parents gain perspective even during very difficult times. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment only. This means that our thoughts are not flying behind us, analyzing what we have done right or wrong, and our thoughts are not flying ahead of us, anticipating what might go right or wrong. Instead, we are simply in the moment.
We almost never need to panic in the present moment. Unless we are actively in a life-or-death health crisis, our panic is typically caused by past and future rumination and is thus unhelpful in the present. Mindfulness can help us calm our nervous system and reduce our reactions to past and future obsessions.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder and you are experiencing high levels of stress and suspect you may be experiencing trauma, please seek counseling from a professional therapist, coach, clergy member, or other trusted (and, ideally, trained) person who can help you get the help you need.
Your pain is valid and serious. I’m sending you so much love and support as you do this important work.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.