Many parents find themselves at the crossroads of an eating disorder and a drinking problem. The disorders are linked and often seen together. So how can a parent help?
- Understand why your child has an eating disorder and a drinking problem
- Learn the steps to recovery
- Support your child’s recovery
Many people who have eating disorders also have a problem with alcohol abuse. It helps to understand the correlation between alcohol and eating disorders. This requires looking closely at the true reason for disordered behavior.
1. Understand why your child has an eating disorder and a drinking problem
Let’s start by understanding why your child has an eating disorder and a drinking problem.
The surface reason for an eating disorder is to control things like weight, body shape, food and exercise. A person who has an eating disorder becomes obsessive and compulsive about eating or not eating, moving or not moving. They use their body as a way to communicate who they are and what is important to them.
Meanwhile, the surface reason for a drinking problem is to have fun, to relax, to be social. A person who has a drinking problem has taken something that a lot of people do (drinking) and become obsessive and compulsive about it. They use alcohol as a way to fit in, communicate, and feel better.
But both of these conditions are actually driven by a deeper need to numb. The underlying purpose is to protect against uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Therefore, eating disorders can be a way to avoid feelings of anger, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Similarly, alcohol can do the same. A drunk person is less likely to feel unhappy, lonely, or stressed.
Some facts about drinking
- By age 15, about 33 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink.
- By age 18, about 60 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink.
- In 2015, 7.7 million young people ages 12–20 reported that they drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the past month.
- 5.1 million young people reported binge drinking (for males 5 or more drinks and for females 4 or more drinks on the same occasion within a few hours) at least once in the past month.
- 1.3 million young people reported binge drinking on 5 or more days over the past month.
Eating disorders and alcohol use can create a vicious cycle. The person avoids uncomfortable feelings and fails to adopt healthy coping mechanisms. Instead of learning to process stress and discomfort, people who have eating disorders and drinking problems rely on coping behaviors.
People who have eating disorders and problems with alcohol have common personality traits. These include impulsive and dramatic dispositions, anxiety and perfectionism. These personality traits are often considered the foundation on which eating disorders and alcoholism are founded. In other words eating disorders and alcohol disorders are a way to regulate emotions.
The signs of eating disorder and a drinking problem are very similar
- Changes in mood, including anger and irritability
- Academic and/or behavioral problems in school
- Changing groups of friends
- Low energy level
- Less interest in activities
- Problems concentrating and/or remembering
- Coordination problems
People who have eating disorders and alcohol problems tend to use more even when they can see that it’s working against them. The alcoholic wakes up with tremendous remorse. They feel regret following a night of drinking and promise to stop drinking forever, only to begin again later that same day.
Similarly, someone who has an eating disorder may awake feeling disgusted by their binge and purge episode the night before. They feel ashamed of their need for this devastating behavior and promise to stop. They start out being “good” by restricting food the next day. But they will likely return to binging and purging at night.
Both the person with the eating disorder and the person with the problem drinking recognizes that they have a problem. They often feel ashamed of the problem. They want it to stop. But they also feel compelled to continue doing it. Therefore, they can’t stop.
The known contributors to eating disorders and problem drinking are very similar
- Social factors, such as media and advertising or the influence of peers
- Family dynamics
- High stress
- Anxiety disorder
- Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences in childhood
Just like with eating disorders, trauma is highly linked to substance abuse. In fact up to 70% of adolescents who are being treated for substance abuse have a history of trauma. Teenagers who are exposed to physical or sexual abuse are even more likely (3x) to struggle with substances. And more than half of teens who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develop substance abuse problems.
With all of this information, it’s important for parents to understand why these disorders arise. We often focus on the behaviors without thinking about the underlying causes. However, when we pay attention to the causes of eating disorders and alcohol abuse, we can treat them with greater results.
2. Learn the steps to recovery
Now that you understand why your child has an eating disorder and a drinking problem, it’s time to look at recovery.
It makes sense to want to stop the behavior right away. But it’s important not to lose sight of how difficult this will be without learning new skills. And new skills require practice and reinforcement. Therefore, we like to look at recovery as having three parts:
- Stopping the behavior: in this part, your child learns to live without their eating disorder behaviors and drinking. This may happen in an inpatient treatment center or at home. Many treatment approaches tackle this first. But it’s also OK to take an individualized approach. Sometimes it can be helpful to work on the other two components first. It really depends on professional assessment of your child’s physical health and imminent danger.
- Learning emotional regulation: people who have eating disorders and drinking problems have trouble with emotional regulation. Emotional dysregulation is normal and natural. It’s a physiological response to stressors. Your child was using an eating disorder and drinking to regulate their emotions. So now they need to learn new skills.
- Practice and reinforcement: traditional treatment usually ends before a person is fully recovered. Recovery can be practiced and reinforced at home. But many times a person returns to an unchanged environment. In these cases we know they are likely to pick up their old patterns and behaviors.
As you can see, the third stage of recovery is critical for ongoing success. And it’s primarily something that’s done at home with parents. This gets us to the next part …
3. Support your child’s recovery
You can support your child’s recovery at home by making some changes. Your main role is in the practice and reinforcement part of recovery. For instance, here’s what this might look like for someone who has an eating disorder and a drinking problem:
- Parents learn emotional co-regulation to help their child calm down when dysregulated
- Alcohol is removed from the home and nobody in the house drinks around the child
- Dieting is not allowed in the home. And nobody in the house talks about weight or labels food as good or bad
- The family regularly talks about and learns about the dangers of drinking and dieting. They take action to reduce harm in their community
- Parents address issues in the family dynamics that may contribute to stress. For example, treating siblings appropriately, maintaining healthy family leadership, the parental role, etc.
- The family focuses on building connection and belonging. In other words, they spend time talking and spending time together
Each family will do this a little bit differently. There is no one-size-fits all solution for eating disorders and alcoholism. But one thing is clear: parents should get help and support. Parents can can learn and grow and support their kids through recovery. If you’re facing this, consider getting a therapist or coach who can guide you.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.