These tips for parents who have a child with an eating disorder are about what you do, not about what your child does. This is because parents can change their own behavior, but we have very little control over our child’s behavior.
This becomes very apparent with an eating disorder diagnosis. Because no matter how much parents want a child to recover, they cannot make it happen with force. Parents who attend to what they do have power over and leave the things they don’t can make the greatest difference in recovery.
1. See your child for who they are
A child who has an eating disorder often surprises their parents. Most people who have eating disorders appear to be “good kids.” Few parents recognize the early signs of an eating disorders because they see the facade the child presents at home and to the world. To help a child recover, parents need to look deeper than surface behaviors and see the child for who they are.
For example, Marianne loves her daughter Tamara. But when Tamara was growing up, Marianne struggled to juggle parenting three kids with her career. Tamara, the middle child, believed that she was a burden.
To compensate, Tamara worked hard to be a good girl and make life easier for Marianne. She cooked dinner for the family, kept her room spotless, and always behaved at school. These were ways in which Tamara sought the love she needed from her mother. And while Marianne thought Tamara was amazing and wonderful, she didn’t realize that Tamara’s goodness was a performance in pursuit of love.
It was natural for Marianne to think that Tamara was a happy, good kid. And recognizing that Tamara had complicated feelings about Marianne’s career was really hard. Marianne realized that Tamara wasn’t just naturally “good;” she was performing a role in an attempt to gain love and affection.
Parents must look beyond kids’ performative roles and see the child within. Marianne now has the chance to show Tamara that she is not a burden, but a perfectly worthy child even when she doesn’t perform goodness.
The idea behind these tips is to show how parents can help with eating disorder recovery. And one of the biggest ways parents can help is by working on their relationship with their child. Parents can also help the child reimagine the roles they play within the family and in the world.
2. Understand what eating disorders are (and what they’re not)
Eating disorders come with behavioral symptoms. It’s all too easy for parents to think that the behaviors are the eating disorder. But in fact the behaviors are symptoms. And treating the symptoms will not necessarily lead to recovery from an eating disorder.
For example, when Tamara started bingeing and purging, she hid it from her parents. But as it got worse, Marianne caught on and got Tamara into treatment for her eating disorder. Marianne was understandably most interested in stopping the behaviors immediately. She didn’t want her little girl to binge eat and purge several times per day.
As a result, Marianne was frustrated when Tamara’s care providers took things slowly. They talked about family dynamics and mental health hygiene. She felt like it was a waste of her time to learn how to cope with Tamara’s anxiety when she really just needed to her to stop bingeing and purging.
But with time and education Marianne came to realize that rushing recovery wasn’t going to lead to long-term health. She slowed down and worked on learning skills that could improve the household environment. She learned how to talk about emotions, and the whole family got better at sharing their feelings.
As Tamara gradually recovered, Marianne could see that all the things she thought were a waste of time were actually essential to healing. As a mental disorder, eating disorders need to be treated on multiple levels. It’s not enough to be abstinent from the behaviors of an eating disorder. True healing comes when the person learns to cope with their emotions without their eating disorder.
These tips for parents acknowledge that while an eating disorder has physical symptoms, they are mental disorders. When parents attend to the mental and emotional side of the eating disorder, they’re often successful at reducing the need for the eating disorder.
3. Create a self-care plan
Parents are under tremendous pressure every day. We exist in a society that provides very little support to us in the best of times. In the worst of times, such as when we have a child who has an eating disorder, many of us can’t help but feel completely isolated and overwhelmed.
When Tamara was diagnosed with an eating disorder, Marianne was prepared to quit her job and devote all her time to Tamara’s recovery. But she loved her job. And while there is a lot that parents can do to help kids recover, it’s also important to maintain their own sense of identity and purpose throughout treatment.
Instead of quitting, Marianne put together a self-care plan to help her support Tamara’s recovery. She looked at all aspects of her own health, including sleep, fitness, eating, joy, and support. Marianne made sure she got enough sleep each night and was eating and moving her body in ways that felt good. She gave up dieting and intense exercise classes and instead adopted Intuitive Eating and enjoyable outdoor walks with her friends. Marianne also got a mentor to support her through Tamara’s recovery.
This may sound like a pipe dream, but mothers have a long history of not taking care of ourselves. This tendency, rather than helping our kids, actually leaves us depleted and less able to help. Think of the airplane warning: adults should always put on their own oxygen masks before they help a child. This is because we can’t help others if we’re gasping for breath.
By bolstering her own self-care, Marianne became a powerful member of Tamara’s recovery team. Her steady, conscious support went a long way towards helping Tamara recover.
Remember that while of course you want your child to recover as quickly as possible, your main goal should actually be to understand and support your child on their unique path to recovery. Parents who do this can make a tremendous positive impact on their child’s recovery. You show up and do what you can, but you also accept what you can’t do.
This approach may feel like the easy way out, but it’s definitely not. It’s actually a lot harder for parents to learn the boundaries around what they can and cannot do for their kids than it is to dive in and try to fix everything for them. Think of when your child was struggling to build something using blocks. Wasn’t it harder to watch them struggle than to just dive in and build the castle for them? Monitoring and managing our own anxiety about what our kids go through is a lot of work, so don’t underestimate the effort required.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.