When parents learn how to help their bulimic daughter, everyone benefits. Bulimia can be a scary diagnosis. And like all eating disorders, it needs specialized and intensive care. But the good news is that parents can make a significant impact on recovery. Your daughter needs you. You can help.
How to help your bulimic daughter
Managing an eating disorder diagnosis isn’t easy. But parents can help by accepting and supporting their child. Your love and acceptance can make a huge impact on her ability to recover. Here are the five things you can do to help your bulimic daughter:
1. Accept your child’s diagnosis
It’s very common for parents to resist an eating disorder diagnosis. That’s because it’s scary to hear that your daughter has a problem. Hardly anyone talks about eating disorders, especially bulimia. Bulimia often carries the most shame among eating disorders.
Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!
- Calming strategies
At the same time, it’s very likely that your daughter will assure you she is fine and doesn’t need treatment. It’s very likely that she will tell you she doesn’t need help. This is actually part of the disorder and is to be expected.
But if she has been binge eating and purging, she does need help, and a few weeks of therapy is not enough. Therefore, accepting your daughter’s bulimia is key to helping her recover.
2. Understand that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed thoroughly
Bulimia is extremely complex and persistent. Your daughter’s bulimia is likely more serious than you think it is because bulimia tends to live in the shadows. It is a powerful coping mechanism that provides your daughter with soothing endorphins. She is reliant on her bulimia to feel OK in her life. As a result, treatment is deep and intense.
Letting go of her bulimia in exchange for healthy coping skills will take time and persistence. But the consequences of a lifetime of bulimia are far more serious. There are serious physical, mental, and emotional health impacts of the disorder. Rest assured that living with bulimia doesn’t have to be your daughter’s fate. It will take time and energy to recover. But it is very possible.
3. Recognize that bulimia requires specialized treatment and recovery
Eating disorders are poorly understood and under-treated. Of all the eating disorders, anorexia has received the most attention and funding for treatment. As I already said, bulimia is often avoided because it can seem distasteful and many people do not appear sick even when they are.
Therefore, finding help for your bulimic daughter can be a challenge. But you need specialized care from someone who is qualified to treat bulimia. This is not a condition that should be treated by a general therapist or dietitian. Please be sure to seek a specialist who was trained in and gets supervision for eating disorder treatment specifically.
4. Respect your child’s process and body throughout recovery
Recovery is hard for everyone. Bulimia provides a protective numbing layer that your child relies on. As a result, recovery requires her to remove her numbing layer and show her parents, loved ones, and friends her true self. Recovery empowers her to recognize her unique wants and desires. It also empowers her to say “no” to things she doesn’t want.
This can be incredibly hard for parents to tolerate. Therefore, it helps if you prepare yourself for conflict and challenging conversations as she recovers.
At the same time, your daughter may gain weight during recovery. It’s best if you avoid any mention of weight gain. However, if she mentions it to you, consider your response very carefully. Parents who respect their daughter’s full recovery process make a huge impact on the strength of her recovery.
5. Get help for yourself so that you can manage the stress of having a bulimic daughter
Your daughter’s bulimia is going to be hard on you. This is not parenting 101. You’ll be asked to learn new things and stretch yourself. Remember that your child must change to recover. Therefore, you’ll need to accommodate her as she changes, grows, and expands.
The most successful parents find support for themselves. When parents learn and grow, their kids feel better. Ideally, it would be great if you could get some therapy and/or coaching to understand your complex feelings about your daughter. Professionals can provide you with education, ideas, and an outlet for your frustration during the process.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves restriction, binge eating, and purging. In this way, it combines the behavioral aspects of anorexia and binge eating disorder, while adding a third behavior: purging.
Many people misunderstand bulimia and focus only on purge behaviors. But it’s important to recognize that purging takes place most often after a period of food restriction. Binge eating is the most common response to restriction. Purge behavior typically comes after restriction and binge eating.
A person who has bulimia often begins with food restriction or anorexic behaviors. While a small population of people will continue with anorexia and become medically underweight, the majority of people do not. The most common response to restriction is binge eating. Most people find themselves driven to eat large quantities of food to make up for the deficit created by dieting and restriction. Therefore, binge eating is often driven by the biological response to hunger.
An obsession with maintaining a low weight makes binge eating feel both scary and unacceptable. Therefore, a sense of being broken and “addicted to food” is common. Binge eating episodes are followed by tremendous shame. Some people will deal with this shame by purging. These are the people who, with repetition, develop bulimia nervosa.
Why your daughter has bulimia
There is no single reason why a person develops an eating disorder. Because there is a complex interaction between inborn temperament, life experience, and the society in which we live. Here are some of the factors that appear to contribute to the development of bulimia nervosa:
- Highly sensitive temperament
- Highly conscientious, with a tendency towards perfectionism
- Conditions including anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and autism
- Sexual abuse/harassment/assault
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- Family fatphobia and focus on body weight
- Family history of food restriction and dieting
- History of dieting and weight cycling
- History of food insecurity
- Poor body image
- History of self-harm, antisocial behavior, and suicidality
- Living in a society that believes thinness equals health, beauty, morality, and wellness
- Being female in a patriarchal society
These conditions combine to create an environment that supports eating disorder development. Not every person who develops an eating disorder has all of these conditions, but most have several.
Treatment for bulimia
Treatment for bulimia typically begins with nutritional counseling to try and get the body in a medically secure place. But it’s also important to work on the underlying conditions that fostered the disorder. As a result, treatment almost always includes psychotherapy and possibly group therapy.
The eating disorder has become a powerful coping mechanism for your daughter. It is how she survives in her life right now. Therefore, in treatment, she needs to gradually learn to replace her eating disorder behaviors with adaptive coping tools.
Use these scripts:
- At the dinner table when behavior is getting out of control
- When you need to set boundaries – fast!
- After something happened so you can calmly review the triggers and events
Remember that bulimia is not just purging. It is also restricting and binge eating. And all of these behaviors are driven by emotional dysregulation. Stopping the purging behavior may seem like the most important first step. But treatment is much more complex and nuanced.
While your daughter is in treatment for bulimia, she may still engage in purge behaviors. Most parents find this very frustrating. However, your child’s provider may be trying to create the conditions for recovery rather than attacking the eating disorder head-on. Head-on attacks can create resistance and rebellion. They can be counterproductive in bulimia recovery.
Can she recover from bulimia?
Yes. It is possible to recover from bulimia. Many people recover from bulimia and go on to live healthy, fulfilling lives. The recovery process for bulimia, like all types of eating disorders, involves learning self-care and emotional management.
Many people who recover from bulimia are often better off than they were before. The process of recovery gives them an advantage over people who never went through an eating disorder and its recovery. Self-awareness can help them better handle life’s ups and downs.
Full recovery requires time to establish amazing tools. The result can be a fabulous life.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. 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 supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
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.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.