If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then you are likely seriously overwhelmed and stressed out. The best way to deal with this is to accept that having a child who has an eating disorder is really, really hard. Of course you’re struggling! Don’t try to deny the difficulties or ignore the hardship. Instead, take good care of yourself through the difficulties and hardships.
Here are 10 self-care tips to help you deal with the stress and anxiety of having a kid who has an eating disorder.
1. Take some deep breaths
When we are stressed out, we tend to get stuck up in our heads, with racing thoughts and a sense of panic. When we are up in our heads, we tend to breathe shallowly, which only adds to our anxiety. This is why taking a deep breath is so incredibly helpful. It may seem like the last thing you want to do, but stop whatever you are doing, and take 5-10 deep breaths. Close your eyes, breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth.
Save this animated gif to your phone and use it to help focus and guide your breathing:
2. Name your feelings
A lot of times when we feel overwhelmed and defeated, we become flooded by our emotions. Guess what happens next? We feel even more overwhelmed and defeated! Naming your feelings helps you gain a sense of understanding and control of the situation. Simply thinking about and writing down your feelings will help diffuse them.
Sit down for a moment and name your feelings. Write down at least 10 feelings that you’re having right now. Here is a great “Feelings Wheel” that you can save to your phone and pull up to help you name your feelings:
As you write each feeling down, take a moment to name the feeling and accept yourself out loud. For example, “I feel insecure. I accept you.” This will feel silly at first, but trust me, it will really help you get grounded and feel better.
3. Take a break from social media
Social media may seem like a great way to distract yourself and zone out, but it has been shown to increase anxiety for all of us. This is most likely due to the social comparison factor to which we are all susceptible. Basically, we see highly-curated and adorable posts from the people we follow, which makes us believe that everyone else is doing well while we alone are struggling. This is never actually true – everyone is struggling to different degrees.
Even as it says it connects us as humans, in almost all cases social media actually serves to make us feel more isolated and alone.
Take a few days, a week, or even longer off of your social media platforms. As you re-enter social media, do so mindfully, and carefully adjust your feeds so that they don’t make you feel bad. Pay attention as you scroll. If there are people and posts that make you feel bad about yourself, be ruthless about unfollowing, blocking, and hiding those people.
Maybe one day you can refollow, but right now you really don’t need to see other people’s faux-perfect lives. Find accounts and hashtags that feel benign and harmless to you. You may enjoy looking at silly dog videos, underwater shots, or beautiful landscapes. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t trigger any strong feelings for you – just calm and peace.
4. Say “no” to one thing you usually say “yes” to
When we have the role of family caregiver, we can lose sight of our ability to say “no” when something doesn’t work for us for no reason other than we don’t want to do it. We tend to think we can only say “no” when we have a “real” conflict like another firm commitment. But we have to train ourselves to say “no” when we just don’t want to do something. Because we have to start seeing ourselves as a commitment.
Try saying “no” to one thing this week to which you typically would have said “yes.” Maybe it’s bringing homemade cookies to the bake sale, running to the drugstore for a last-minute supply for school, or texting with a nervous co-worker after hours. You can even (gasp!) say no to family events that are draining for you. Even when we love people deeply, we sometimes have to say “no” to doing things and being with them because we are depleted and need to rest.
5. Complete one task that will make you feel accomplished
When we’re overwhelmed by emotions and stress, sometimes it helps to feel we have some power in the world. With so many things out of our control sometimes taking on one small task and completing it can help us remember that we do have agency and power in our lives. The important thing is that you should choose a simple task that will take less than 10 minutes and will make you feel good when it is done.
For some of us, cleaning the whole house is awful, but one small cleaning project feels great. Try organizing the clutter on your bathroom counter, making your bed, folding the clothes you have crumpled in the corner of your closet, or any other small effort that will give you an immediate sense of accomplishment. Or maybe you prefer something body-based. Perhaps washing your hair, a 10-minute walk around the block or 10-minute stretching session will help.
Keep the task small and specific. Don’t overwhelm yourself by making it big and significant. Set a timer if you tend to overdo things. Most importantly, take a moment to appreciate your accomplishment when it’s done.
6. Call someone who thinks you’re awesome
Parenting can be a lonely, frustrating effort. When we have a child who has an eating disorder, it can be even harder to feel like we’re “doing it right.” Think of someone you know who thinks you’re awesome and give them a call.
Maybe it’s a parent, sibling, or another family member. Maybe it’s your college roommate or best friend from high school. Ideally, find someone who knows you as someone other than a parent who is struggling right now. Call a person who sees you as someone who is infinitely lovable and worthy. Someone who is fun to be around.
Find that person and call them. It’s OK to tell them that you’re feeling down and ask whether they can remind you of who you were/are. Unless they aren’t actually “your person,” they will feel honored to be your cheerleader.
7. Recognize the potential for positive change
Eating disorders can feel like a life sentence, but for the vast majority of us, they are not. Most of us recover from eating disorders, and many of us “spontaneously” recover in a way that seems sudden and “out of the blue.” In no way should we dismiss the eating disorder or ignore it, but we can try to approach it with the calm confidence that it will most likely resolve.
Have you ever tried the “Chinese Finger Trap?” Most people immediately pull their fingers apart and keep pulling in a fruitless attempt to escape, but the secret to getting out of the trap is to relax and let your fingers get closer together.
Have faith that positive change is possible. Remember that it usually comes from coming closer together rather than tensing and pulling apart.
8. Seek healthy distraction
It’s totally OK to seek ways to distract yourself when things get hard. Find healthy ways to take your mind off the eating disorder. Ideally, you’ll find some activities that are both soothing and engaging. Distractions, like walking the dog, coloring pages, reading short stories, and listening to an inspirational podcast, are all an excellent way to calm your nervous system, which is likely on full-alert.
Having a child who has an eating disorder is the very definition of stress. Allow your body and mind to relax with healthy distractions that will literally take your mind off your troubles and reconnect you with your sense of peace.
9. Watch caffeine and alcohol
You’re under tremendous stress, and in our culture, we have two well-known liquids that “help” us manage stress: caffeine and alcohol. One or two servings of each per day may be a perfectly normal way for you to gear up or wind down, but if you are exceeding a previously-determined “healthy” quantity of caffeine and alcohol, it may be a sign that you are reaching for unhealthy distractions and coping mechanisms.
It may start with an extra cup of coffee once per week, or an extra glass of wine on the weekends, but if you notice that your “extra” serving becomes part of what you do every day, then it may be time to slow down and seek healthier ways to cope with the stress you are under.
10. Make an appointment with a therapist
You may think that your child is the only one who needs therapy, but there’s a good chance that you would greatly benefit from some therapy as they go through eating disorder treatment. Parents who look closely at themselves and are able to be vulnerable and open about their own struggles can really help a child who is in recovery for an eating disorder.
If you feel you don’t want to see a therapist or can’t afford a therapist, consider seeking mental health support from a coach, social worker, counselor, or a trained religious advisor.
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 who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.