Ian and Melissa were stunned to find out that Jake, their son, had an eating disorder. “We didn’t see it coming at all,” says Ian. “I thought he was really applying himself to his fitness and sport, but now I can see that his behavior became more and more disordered over time.”
Ian is a high school coach, and while he doesn’t coach at Jake’s school, there’s still a lot of overlap. “I’ve been coaching Jake since he was born, practically,” he says. “I love taking him out to throw the ball and practice his swing. We’ve been playing baseball his whole life. And now he can’t play until he gets better. I don’t know what to do with him anymore.”
Melissa agrees. “It’s like our whole life revolved around baseball – Ian’s and Jake’s, and now we’ve had to change everything,” she says. “Jake can’t play, and Ian doesn’t know how to connect with Jake without talking about baseball. It’s created a double problem. There’s the eating disorder, but then there’s also the loss of this connection they had.”
I get it. Making the transition from feeling as if everything is on track to dealing with an eating disorder is a major shift. But the good news is that Ian’s background as a coach can be really helpful in eating disorder recovery. While they’re taking a break from baseball, he can use his coaching skills to connect and support Jake through recovery.
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Here are six skills Ian can use to coach Jake through recovery from his eating disorder.
1. Know your role
A coach has played the game and honed their skills over years of practice. But the best coaches aren’t always the best players. Because being a coach is very different from being a player. The key difference is that a coach recognizes and honors their players’ autonomy, knowledge, and strengths.
A coach can’t get on the field and play the game. Instead they help their players do it. A coach’s responsibility is to guide, not to control. They provide support, insight, and knowledge, but never lose sight of the fact that the person they are coaching is responsible for making his or her own decisions.
This is a great model for parenting through an eating disorder. Just like a coach, Ian can’t do recovery for Jake. But he can support Jake nonetheless. And his support will be invaluable to Jake’s recovery. Knowing his role will help him embrace what he can do to help.
2. Know the game
A great coach knows the game inside and out. Just because you don’t currently know everything about eating disorders doesn’t mean you can’t be a great coach. But it does mean it’s time to learn. Learn about eating disorders, then, learn about your child’s own unique form of disordered eating and over-exercise. No two eating disorders are the same.
Get to know more about your child’s co-occurring and underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression or ADHD, ASD, OCD, PTSD, etc. Learn about what is going on by reading, talking to others, and researching everything you can to help you better understand your child’s mental health.
Ian feels out of his element with eating disorders, but that doesn’t mean he can’t become an expert on Jake and his eating disorder. He can apply the same time and passion that he’s dedicated to baseball to this.
3. Ask questions
A good coach asks a lot of thoughtful questions and provides few answers. Coaches know that a great question can open up new ideas and opportunities for a player. When coaches have all the answers, the player doesn’t “own” their own game. But when a coach asks the right questions, the player takes responsibility for their performance and plays better as a result.
When working with your child, ask questions that allow your child to find out more about him or herself. Talking through problems without having your offer advice and guidance (unless expressly requested), will help your child find their own solution. When someone finds their own solution, they are more engaged in the outcome.
Also ask questions of your child’s treatment team, not just at the beginning, but constantly. Never be afraid to ask about progress and the system the therapist is following towards recovery.
4. Listen carefully
Coaches must listen carefully and reflect back what they are hearing. During this process, the coach allows the other person to work out what they are really trying to say or do. A coach is both authoritative and humble. Coaches know their stuff and aren’t afraid to show it, but they also honor each player’s autonomy and empower them by treating them with respect.
Be humble enough to recognize that you do not know your child’s thoughts based on the simple fact that you are their parent. In fact, there is a very good chance that the fact you are a parent is making it impossible for you to guess at what your child is going through.
When you learn to listen actively and supportively without judgment or opinion, your teenager will surprise you with how much they have to say. This is not easy, but it makes a huge impact.
5. Be organized
A coach comes to the table with an idea of what they want to accomplish with each player. Coaches know the skills their players need to succeed and are experts at recognizing who needs to work on what. Structuring practices so that everyone works on the skills they need requires organization and planning.
Talk to your child’s treatment team and find out what skills they are currently working in therapy. Ask for ways to reinforce that skill at home, and then work as a family towards that goal.
Talk to your child about their own goals during recovery. What are some important milestones that you can help them work towards? Not all of the goals have to be about the eating disorder – life goals are just as, if not more important during recovery. Being a great coach through eating disorder recovery is a combination of organization and inspiration.
6. Leave your ego at the door
A coach must put the outcome – success or failure – in the hands of the player. A coach cannot get out on the field or force someone to achieve great results. Because great results must come from the player.
Your child will only fully recover if they can find a way to be self-motivated. Coaches help players tap into inherent motivation by leaving their egos at the door. Coaches must disengage their success from that of the person they are coaching. Your child is not a reflection of you. Your child is a human being who needs to find his or her own way in the world.
Great coaches are not born, nor are they made overnight. The best coaches spend decades learning how to achieve the six points above. They learn through trial and error, research and deep reflection.
Ian and Melissa don’t have decades to work with. But they have a lot going for them as loving, caring parents. And they can coach Jake through eating disorder recovery by attending to these six coaching concepts. Since we’re talking about their kid, for whom they’re willing to move mountains, I know they can do a lot to help. Parenting a child with an eating disorder isn’t easy, but they’re doing a great job!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery. Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with 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.