If your child has an eating disorder, you may be surprised to hear that their recovery will likely improve if you get parent coaching or therapy.
This can be really annoying. After all, aren’t they the one with the problem? Your only problem is that your kid is a nightmare! Otherwise, everything’s fine! Sound familiar?
We live in family ecosystems
Here’s the thing: our kids don’t operate independently. Societal messages tell us that we are supposed to be independent and emotionally self-contained. But human beings are actually completely driven by social groups, and especially nuclear family groups. In fact, almost nothing is more important to our development than our parents’ ability to connect with us.
So when something goes wrong with a child, it’s very unlikely that it went wrong in a vacuum or independent of the parents and family system. Almost all emotional disruptions in our kids, including eating disorders, substance abuse, shoplifting, self-harm, and other dangerous behaviors are rooted somehow in the family system.
This doesn’t come from a place of blame. It comes from a place of empowerment. You want your child to get better. And, guess what? You can help! A lot!
But you can only help if you reflect on yourself and the family dynamic in which you live. And that’s exactly why therapy and/or parent coaching can help your child recover from an eating disorder.
The conditions to thrive
Think of a plant. You put a plant in your garden and it fails to thrive. It’s your prerogative to blame the plant, but then you’re missing the fact that the plant lives in your garden. You can keep blaming the plant and ignore the conditions, but your plants will keep failing to thrive. This is because plants are not self-contained. They rely on the right water, sunlight, and soil conditions. Without those elements, the plant will struggle.
Emotional caregiving is the equivalent of water, sunlight, and soil conditions for humans. Most of us have not been taught how to optimize emotional caregiving conditions for our kids. But we can learn, and getting professional help is often the fastest way to do so.
Reasons you need therapy/parent coaching if your child has an eating disorder
You may be sick and tired of having people suggest that you get therapy or parent coaching when your child is the one with an eating disorder (not you). It may make you very angry that these so-called experts keep telling you that you need it. I get it. Most people don’t understand the value of therapy and coaching because they haven’t encountered it personally. But therapy can be truly transformative for families that are struggling with eating disorders.
Here are the four main reasons parents who have a child with an eating disorder need parent coaching and/or therapy:
1. You need support
Having a child who has an eating disorder is really hard. Since we live in an individualistic society, most parents feel isolated and ashamed when something goes wrong at home. A therapist or coach can provide you with compassionate support during this difficult time.
A therapist or coach will also help you find ways to open up to your friends and family members in a way that is supportive of you and respectful of your child. You don’t need to live in silence and pain. You deserve to reach out and get community support during this difficult time.
2. You need to understand what recovery is (and what it isn’t)
Eating disorders are complex mental conditions that require specialized and (often) long-term treatment. You’re in for a marathon, not a sprint. This means that the more you can understand about eating disorders and recover, the better able you are to support a speedy recovery.
Eating disorder recovery is often frustrating and expensive for parents. So while it can seem strange to add an expense to the process, your engagement in recovery could actually make it more likely.
A therapist or coach can work with you on your assumptions about eating disorders and help you find peace with your child’s recovery process.
3. You need to reflect on your family dynamic
Our children are finely attuned to our needs as parents and their role in the family. This attunement can lead to disordered behavior because it sometimes requires a child to adjust who they are or how they behave in order to meet the needs of the family dynamic.
A family dynamic that remains the same can’t accommodate the recovered, healthy child. This frequently leads to relapse and ongoing problems. A trained professional can help you notice the ways in which your child’s dangerous behaviors are linked to your family dynamic. Once you can see the purpose behind the behavior, you can adjust and accommodate your recovering child.
4. You have the greatest potential to help your child
Nobody – not a therapist, not a doctor, and not medicine, will have as significant an impact on your child’s health as your behavior and beliefs about your child. This is daunting but also empowering. You have the opportunity to approach your child’s disorder in a new, different way. You can make a huge impact on your child’s recovery.
Parents who understand that maladaptive behaviors arise in the context of the family system are able to support a child’s complete recovery. Recovery doesn’t give you back a child you had previously. It gives you a fuller, more present, and more assertive person than you had before. Your consistent and compassionate understanding of your child’s healing process will make the transition to full recovery easier for everyone.
What is the difference between therapy and coaching?
Many parents have a strong aversion to getting professional help with parenting. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting help for yourself often makes a massive impact on your child’s recovery. You could benefit from both therapy and coaching, as they serve different purposes. Below are some general differences between the two options:
Therapist: will help you dig deep into your own psyche to uncover unconscious beliefs and patterns that impact how you parent. Provides emotional support and non-judgmental care. Typically asks you to look within for answers. Is often focused on understanding your psyche to shape your future.
Coach: will help you learn more about parenting and how your behaviors impact your child. Provides the opportunity to assess behavior and try new things. May guide you in finding answers and solutions to everyday challenges. Is often focused on changing your behavior to shape your future.
What parents get wrong about therapy and coaching
Here are the top five incorrect assumptions people make about therapy and parent coaching:
1. I don’t need help because I’m not the one with a problem
It can be hard to get on board with getting help for yourself if your perception is that you don’t have a problem. But you do. Your child is having a problem, and that’s a problem for you. Our kids are finely attuned to our needs and wants as their parents, and their dangerous behaviors are often a mirror into our parenting styles. This may feel threatening, but it’s actually the gateway to healing. A parent’s change can transform not only the child who is openly struggling, but the entire family and beyond.
2. I am who I am – talking to someone isn’t going to change me
It’s true that you are a fully-formed adult human. But the beautiful thing that we’ve learned with neuroscience is the concept of neuroplasticity. That is: the human brain continues to be able to grow, change, and adapt throughout our lives. Just because you have established your interpersonal style and behaviors doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things and make new neural connections. You have a tremendous capacity to grow and learn. And a professional can help you re-wire your neurological system so that parenting actually gets easier and less stressful! A professional therapist or coach will change your life if you commit to the process of change.
3. A therapist or coach is like a friend you pay to listen to you
No. A therapist or coach is not your friend. They are a professional who is there to help you untangle implicit (subconscious) assumptions and make discoveries that will improve your parenting behavior. Your friends are wonderful – they are typically there to support you and cheer you on no matter what. But a therapist has been taught to recognize and gently challenge biases and patterns that interfere with your ability to connect with your child. You will never be blamed or shamed, but you will begin to see ways in which you can behave differently.
Does this mean my child doesn’t need treatment if I get therapy?
No. Your child still needs treatment and support for what they are going through. But parents who get professional help can make a huge impact on their child’s recovery.
If your child sees a therapist for two sessions per week, they still have about 124 waking hours when they are not seeing a therapist. You, on the other hand, are likely interacting with your child at least one hour per day. You can make a big difference if you use that hour to connect deeply and heal any relational wounds that are impacting recovery.
Getting professional support for yourself may feel like a luxury, but it can in fact strengthen your child’s recovery.
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.