We are often afraid to talk about how parents may enable an eating disorder. One reason is because we unconsciously believe that if a parent is “enabling,” they are therefore at fault or responsible for the eating disorder. So I need to start by clearly stating that parents are not responsible for a child’s eating disorder, and, by the way, the person who has the eating disorder isn’t at fault either.
✴️ If you want to know more about why blame is inappropriate, check out this article, which is the first in a 4-part series about the causes of eating disorders.
✴️ Also, as a parent myself, I prefer the less-fraught word “accommodating” to “enabling.” But since you are more likely to have heard and understand the word enabling, that’s the word I’ll use in this article.
Are you enabling?
OK, so we know that parents are not at fault for eating disorders, and now you want to know whether you are enabling your child’s eating disorder. And the short answer is that yes, you probably are. But remember, this isn’t because you’re bad! It’s because eating disorders cause a lot of distress for your child, and enabling is just a way that parents try to reduce distress. Enabling has a nasty reputation, but it’s really just a natural thing parents do to help their kids avoid distress.
Let’s say your child is afraid of getting in an elevator because a man is inside yelling into his cell phone while loosely holding onto two big, growling dogs. Your child is afraid, and you understand, so you turn around and walk up a short flight of stairs to get to your destination. No problem. It makes sense, and it was easy to do.
But let’s just imagine that after you do that one time, your child says they don’t want to go in any elevators, even if there isn’t a yelling man with growling dogs inside. Whenever you encounter an elevator with your child, they want to take the stairs. And you find it irritating (and tiring!), but you also see how scared your child gets when faced with an elevator and you don’t want to make them feel scared, so you avoid the elevator.
Soon your child starts to sweat and shake even thinking about an elevator. So when you enter a building, you don’t even walk towards the elevator shaft. No matter how many flights there are to climb, you find the stairwell and trudge up the stairs with your child. After all, you don’t want your child to be upset. Sometimes you try to convince them that it’s safe, but nothing seems to work. In fact, getting on an elevator with your child now feels impossible. You cannot imagine them doing it. You keep taking the stairs with them.
The first experience with the man and the dogs in the elevator was a reasonable decision to protect your child from a scary situation. But continuing to avoid elevators, while it makes perfect sense and feels like the most loving, kind thing to do, is enabling your child’s anxiety.
Enabling always starts as a reasonable accommodation. I’ve never met a parent who didn’t enable with all the best intentions. And remember, the intention is to avoid the child’s distress. But unfortunately, we know for a fact that when parents accommodate anxiety, it gets worse and more debilitating.
In fact, the only way to overcome anxiety is to learn to get through the distress it brings. That doesn’t mean you should put your child in a dangerous situation with growling dogs. But it does mean that when doing something that is very safe, like going on an elevator without a yelling man and growling dogs, you must help your child tolerate their anxiety and use the elevator even though they feel anxious about it. The longer you enable your child to avoid the elevator, the harder it will be for them to overcome their fear and learn to tolerate an activity that is perfectly safe and reasonable.
The difference sounds like this:
Enabling: “it’s scary, so we’ll avoid it.”
Supporting: “I’ll help you do this while you feel scared.”
Enabling an eating disorder
Let’s switch to an eating example now. Say your child came home from school one day realizing that eggs could turn into baby chicks, and they declare that they are disgusted by eggs, and the thought of eating them makes them gag. You figure that makes sense, and you don’t want your child to be upset, so you agree to change their breakfast from scrambled eggs to oatmeal – no big deal.
But a few weeks later, your child says that eating any animal is disgusting, and they are now a vegan. Since your family is omnivorous and you enjoy cooking family meals, this is a big deal. In fact, family dinner is the only time you all sit down together, and you really enjoy eating together. Since the other family members aren’t vegan, you now have to cook two separate meals, which you don’t enjoy. But your child seems really upset about the animal thing, and you don’t want them to be upset, so you do it.
A few weeks later, your child says they don’t want to eat “junk food” anymore. This means you must figure out how to feed them a virtually sugar-free, fat-free, vegan menu. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but when you suggest they eat some french fries, something they enjoyed just a few months ago, they have a panic attack. They accuse you of not being sensitive to their needs and making them anxious. So you learn a new way to cook and start walking on eggshells when it comes to food.
Now you notice your child is losing weight and getting increasingly anxious. You also see them looking in the mirror and pinching their skin. They start to talk about not getting fat and worry that they’ve eaten too much. Restaurants are out of the question, and parties have become tense and strenuous. They rarely join the family for dinner anymore. You suspect they have an eating disorder, but you’re afraid to bring it up because talking about food has become impossible.
This is just one type of eating disorder + enabling presentation (there are many varieties!). And at every stage, the parent responds in the best way possible. This is not bad parenting! All of the steps they took are loving and well-meaning. They are doing their best. And they are also enabling the eating disorder.
Wonderful, loving families
Almost every family dealing with an eating disorder has some form of enabling pattern. I hope I’ve made it explicitly clear that this is not because these families are bad. In fact, it’s the opposite. These are wonderful, loving families. But once you know you have an eating disorder in the family, you also have to recognize that it’s not just the person with the eating disorder who needs to recover.
Your child will need to get treatment for their eating disorder. This will require them to eat differently and think differently about food, eating, and their body. Meanwhile, you’ll need to start noticing how enabling patterns show up in your family and with your child’s unique eating disorder and begin changing the enabling patterns. Learning to stop enabling an eating disorder is extremely hard but also has a tremendous impact on recovery.
I hope you see that none of this is parent-blaming. The parents with the most empathy are the ones who usually get into enabling patterns. You are not bad for enabling any more than your child is bad for having an eating disorder. But if you’re committed to your child’s recovery, then recovering from your enabling patterns is the key to making a difference.
Recovering from enabling
To recover from enabling patterns, parents need to:
- Recognize when and how you enable eating disorder behaviors
- Change your enabling patterns
- Tolerate your child’s distress with empathy and strength
- Repeat, recommit, and practice daily
Like recovery from an eating disorder, ending your enabling patterns is really hard but also profoundly worthwhile. It will require tremendous fortitude and strength, but the payoff is enormous.
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 eating disorder recovery.