Co-parenting after divorce is a challenging effort for most people. When you have a child who has an eating disorder, these challenges can peak, and you may find yourself fighting more frequently and struggling with your ex over how you approach treatment for your child. Here are six tips for co-parenting a child who has an eating disorder.
1. Let go of the guilt
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room: your divorce. You may worry that your divorce has negatively impacted your child. You may even secretly wonder whether your divorce directly led to your child’s eating disorder. But let’s be absolutely clear: you made a decision and did what was best for you. Nobody chooses divorce because it’s easy. You chose divorce because you had to. For whatever reason, divorce was the path your marriage had to take.
And yes, divorce does impact our kids, but the impact doesn’t have to be disastrous. Even a divorce that went really badly can still turn out to be OK with your kids. The first thing you have to do is lose your guilt about the divorce because we simply can’t parent effectively from a place of guilt. Accept that your divorce is a part of your kids’ life, and work from that place.
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2. Accept your ex
This may be the hardest part of co-parenting after divorce. The fact is, you chose to divorce your ex, and there’s a good chance that if you hadn’t had kids together, you wouldn’t choose to spend time with your ex. Being required to find a way to work with someone whom you chose to divorce is asking a lot. Let’s acknowledge that, and do it anyway.
The only way you can effectively co-parent with your ex is if you learn to accept your ex’s strengths and weaknesses. You simply won’t be a good co-parent if you’re constantly seething about your ex. This may seem insurmountable since those weaknesses are probably the very things that drove you out of the marriage.
But here’s the good news: you’re not married anymore. You don’t have to agree with your spouse – you just have to accept them. There’s a huge difference, and it’s in the difference between agreement and acceptance that we can find the key to co-parenting.
3. Agree on some basic values
When you have a child who has an eating disorder you are parenting in a crisis. There is a lot to figure out, and somehow you have to get on the same page. One way to do this is to agree upon some basic recovery values that you’re both going to follow. For example:
- We value our child’s health and are willing to learn new things that challenge our beliefs to accommodate our child’s recovery.
- We value treatment and will share the expenses and travel burden and attend therapy together if recommended.
- We value respectful relationships and will work to accept our differences, avoid drama, and treat each other with respect.
Agree on just a few values that you can both easily agree are important. Write them down, and keep them nearby. Whenever a problem arises between you regarding parenting, reference your shared values, and use them to guide your co-parenting efforts instead of relying on emotion.
4. Agree on some basic rules
Rules differ from values in that they are firm and don’t invite discussion. Values may shift, and we may engage in debate to determine how the best fit a situation, but rules should be clear-cut and definitive. For example, some family rules when a child has an eating disorder may include:
- No dieting: this means that absolutely no weight loss efforts should be taking place in the entire household.
- No body talk: this means that nobody should engage in fat-talk, fat-shaming, or any body-oriented talk about themselves or anyone else.
- No tracking apps: fitness trackers can be a real challenge for anyone who has an eating disorder. Nobody should wear them.
- No scales in the house: scales can drive eating disorder behaviors and derail eating disorder recovery. You should remove all scales from the house.
It’s important to know that most of us will make mistakes and struggle to meet rules like this. Try not to come down too hard if your ex has trouble maintaining these rules. However, do write them down, agree to them, and discuss them regularly. Check in with your ex to make sure they are maintaining these rules in their household.
5. Think about what’s best for your child
It’s normal to want to hold your child close during eating disorder recovery. But make sure that if you suggest making any changes to custody and visitation agreements you are acting legally and in your child’s best interest. Custody is tricky, and there is no best answer.
It may be that in early recovery your child may benefit from staying in a single household. It may be that one parent has more flexibility and thus can take a more active role in your child’s treatment. But never ignore the fact that community and family connections are a tremendous asset in eating disorder recovery. If your child has deep roots and gains fulfillment from spending time with your ex’s family and is a part of their community, then find ways to maintain those elements in their life throughout treatment.
If your child asks for a change in custody or visitation during treatment, try to approach it with an open mind. Work with your ex to try and remove your emotional response to such a change, and seek the solution that works best for your child right now. Work with a therapist or coach for guidance on this topic.
6. Speak up
If your ex is unable to meet you in the middle – if you’ve really tried to set values and put your child first, but it’s just not working – then it may be time for you to speak up more assertively. Your child’s recovery from an eating disorder must be your first priority. If your ex is threatening your child’s recovery by enabling eating disorder behaviors, you may need to get some legal support and protect your child. Be very, very careful with your actions, however, as they can backfire and have unintended consequences.
Consult an expert, and seek the truth inside of yourself to identify whether you are advocating for your child or responding to your own pain and suffering from the divorce. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that you find it hard to co-parent with your ex, but it’s not OK to sacrifice your child’s health because you are not able to rise above and parent from a place of maturity.
Co-parenting with an eating disorder adds complexity, but it’s well worth working towards shared goals as your child recovers.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.