When our child has an eating disorder, we need to learn new parenting skills so that we can give them the love that will help them recover. A parent’s unconditional and informed love can make all the difference in recovery. Here’s how to love your child when they have an eating disorder.
1. Learn as much as you can about your child’s eating disorder
Eating disorders are mysterious to most of us. The media portrays eating disorders in a dramatic, unrealistic way, which leaves most of us unprepared for the vast majority of eating disorders. There is no single book or resource that will tell you everything you need to know about eating disorders, but a great place to start is to ask your child to talk about their eating disorder.
This may seem like a strange thing to do, but talking about an eating disorders with a safe, trusted adult, does not cause the behaviors to increase, and can often help with recovery.
Understanding eating disorders
You should also understand eating disorders in general. For example, while binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia may seem completely different from each other, they all have a common root in food restriction.
While someone who has anorexia will maintain this restriction for longer periods of time, someone who has bulimia or binge eating disorder will be overwhelmed by a need to eat, and, since they restricted, they have a biological urge to consume a lot of food to make up for the deficit.
But the root of all types of eating disorders is a restriction of food and nourishment. And an eating disorder is not a weight-based condition – it is a mental condition. Weight tells us very little about eating disorder status except in the most extreme cases.
Consider this: a child’s first instinct is to pursue food and nourishment from their parents. A child who develops an eating disorder is restricting their very first and most critical instinct as a human being. This is why parents can be the most important element of a child’s recovery.
If we can help our child feed themselves on demand with compassion and love, they can recover from their eating disorder. It’s true that eating disorders are complicated and messy, but at a massively simplified level, recovery requires unconditional nourishment. The more a parent understands this need for unconditional nourishment and love, the better they can support their child’s recovery.
2. Talk about your concerns and feelings openly and honestly
Eating disorders bring up a lot of feelings for parents. While your child is the one who has the disorder, it will impact their parents, family members, and friends. Eating disorders are scary, mainly because they are so misunderstood in our society.
As a parent you will have a lot of feelings about your child who has an eating disorder, the impact the disorder has on your life and how your family functions, and who you are as a parent. It’s best not to bottle these feelings up.
If you have trouble getting help for your own distress, get help for the sake of your child. People who have eating disorders are typically highly sensitive, and can pick up on their parents’ nonverbal communication. So you may think you’re hiding how you feel, but your child will still sense it.
Find trusted adults who you can talk to about your feelings. Ideally, you should have a team of people to whom you can turn when you feel frustrated, angry, and sad about the eating disorder. If at all possible, get some therapy for yourself. A professional will help you better understand the disorder, yourself, and your role in recovery. They can also provide you with a safe place in which to process all of your feelings about the disorder.
3. Understand that it may take time for everyone – your child, your family, and you yourself, to regain trust
Eating disorders often involve secretive behavior and even lying. Many people who have eating disorders distance themselves from parents, friends, and loved ones.
This distancing is necessary in order for the eating disorder to maintain its power. Distancing also makes it hard to trust someone who has an eating disorder, because we feel personally offended by the secrecy and dishonesty that accompanies eating disorders.
It’s going to take time for your child to learn to trust that they can live without their eating disorder, and it’s only when that occurs that they will be able to trust you again.
And it’s going to take time for you to trust your child again.
Remember that there’s no rush, and there’s no “finish line” in eating disorder recovery. Most people can and do recover. Let trust rebuild gradually and over time, and work to actively rebuild trust when you can.
4. Understand the connection between food, nourishment, and love
Food is not just “fuel” and it’s not something we should worry so much about. Our culture has a lot of messed-up messages about food, and as a part of the culture, it’s very likely that you and other family members have “food rules” and limits on what is considered “good” and “bad.”
As your child recovers from their eating disorder, it’s important to open your mind and associate food not with its nutritional components (e.g. carbs, macros, calories, sugar) but instead with its ability to nourish.
Most of us restrict food on some level out of fear that eating “bad” foods will impact our health and weight. But when we reframe food in terms of nourishment and love, we recognize that what is in our food is less important than how we feel about food.
There is a large and growing group of Registered Dietitians who are actively working to change the narrative around food. Instead of labeling foods “good” and “bad,” these RDs think about the food environment holistically, and encourage people to get in touch with the food they actually like to eat and enjoy eating.
We have a directory of RDs who work from this perspective, and they can help parents reset their relationship with food, especially in relation to an eating disorder.
5. Let go of fatphobia for good
We live in a fatphobic society that thinks the worst thing a person can be is fat and that says we can and should control our weight. This belief is problematic on many levels, and is likely one of the driving factors behind increasing rates of eating disorders.
To help our child recover from an eating disorder, we have to let go of our fear of fat. We have to accept that bodies are diverse, and we must fight back against our pathologic desire to control our bodies. Here are some basic facts about fat that you may not realize:
- Despite what we’ve been told, fat is not “deadly”
- Intentional weight loss of any type results in weight regain, often plus more, 95% of the time
- Intentional weight loss/weight control causes permanent damage to our metabolism, resulting in higher lifetime weight
- Any form of weight loss/weight control involves eating disorder behaviors
I know this information goes against everything we believe about fat. Please visit our research library for the scientific evidence supporting these statements.
Recovering from an eating disorder
Recovery from an eating disorder requires us to release our fear of “getting fat.” Recovery requires us to believe that it’s OK for us to eat to our appetite, to not restrict food, and to accept our bodies in the form they want to be (vs. what we want them to be).
Recovery is harder when parents and family members are still engaging in eating disorder behaviors to achieve weight loss/weight control.
Parents who want their kids to recover from an eating disorder can help tremendously if they accept that fat is a normal, natural part of most bodies and stop trying to control their body size through eating disorder behaviors. Learn about Health at Every Size to understand this better.
Learning to love someone who has an eating disorder means working to understand your loved one in a new way. They are the same person, but are undergoing tremendous stress about their body and food. Your unconditional love can be just what they need to move into recovery.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.