When your child has an eating disorder like bulimia, binge eating disorder, or anorexia, you have to rally all of your forces to help him or her heal. It’s not your fault that your child has an eating disorder, and yet you may be able to help her heal.
While his or her therapists and support team provide evidence-based treatment techniques during recovery, you are there with him or her in between treatment/therapy sessions and after treatment and/or therapy ends. Yet many times you don’t have a lot of insight into what you should or should not be doing!
We offer ideas and suggestions about how parents can provide more love to children who have eating disorders. The support we provide is not about solving the problem of the eating disorder itself, but to figure out what the heck you are supposed to do while the eating disorder rages through your child.
How do you interact? What do you say? What do you do? How do you take care of yourself and the other members of your family when all of this is going on? What do you do when insurance runs out or therapy ends, but your child still needs help maintaining recovery?
Below are the underlying principles we hold dear when providing you with support.
The first important step you need to take to help your child is to forgive yourself for your child’s eating disorder. Let us be clear: YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR CHILD’S EATING DISORDER. At the same time, if you are a parent, there is a very good chance that no matter how many times we say that, there is some doubt in your mind that you perhaps did something wrong that led to this outcome.
These thoughts are natural, and they are untrue. Your mind will say crazy stuff to you like “remember that time you forced her to eat the chewy chicken? Now she doesn’t trust her body!” or “remember when you noticed she had a little pudge on her belly, and you thought it was cute? Now she hates her body!” Yeah, your mind says crazy stuff.
You don’t have to believe your mind, but you also don’t have to fight it. Instead, steal its thunder. Whenever your brain says nasty stuff about your parenting, say “I forgive you. I love you. We’re doing our best.” It sounds a little kooky, but trust us on this. Forgiving yourself is transformative.
Forgive yourself every time a negative, nasty thought pops into your mind telling you that you suck at parenting, and move on. Abandon the false perception that you have control over your child. Accept that you have always done your best and will continue to do your best.
Without the false perception of control, all you have left is love. Love is powerful, and it begins with forgiving yourself.
Mourn Your Perfect Child
It is very likely that you child will heal from the eating disorder and go on to be successful at life and love. But right now you are forced to face the fact that she or he has an eating disorder and is struggling mightily. This is a terrible fact for any loving parent to face. We want our children to be happy and well-adjusted. We want our kids to be healthy. We do not want them to suffer.
Honor the natural and heartfelt feelings of loss that arise inside of you regarding the eating disorder. Mourn your vision of having a perfect child who lives without pain and suffering. This is a natural and powerful wish for all parents. We all do the best we can for our kids, and it’s virtually impossible to avoid hoping for an excellent outcome.
Cry, rage, mourn. Reflect on the vision you had of raising a perfectly well-adjusted child who feels no pain and is free of illness. Then let that vision go so that your child can be a wonderfully imperfect, mostly happy, mostly successful, human being.
Hopefully you have experts working with your child and giving you evidence-based treatment to handle the eating disorder. But don’t lose your voice in the process. You are allowed to ask questions, to seek answers, and to play a role in the healing process.
You need to speak up about the eating disorder in your home, possibly at your child’s school, and definitely in the healthcare setting. Don’t sit back and play martyr or act ignorant or cede critical decisions to other people. You have intimate knowledge of your child, you have the opportunity to make an impact, and you can be a vital part of your child’s healing process.
Don’t let shame (which is unfounded BTW – see above and forgive, forgive, forgive!) or fear stop you from opening your mouth when you think your child might benefit from something. Do research, listen to experts, and carefully consider your own and your family’s thoughts on how best to manage the eating disorder within your lives.
Also speak up on behalf of yourself and the others in your family. It is very easy for the child with the eating disorder to take the lion’s share of attention in your family, but that is not healthy for anyone. You may need some help on how exactly to strike this balance. Work with your child’s treatment team, and consider getting a therapist or coach to work with you on parenting through this difficult time. You’re doing your best – hang in there!
Let Love In
Many of us have been trying so hard to be perfect parents for so long. We feel like we give and give and give, and we are exhausted. Between work, home, extended family, marital intimacy, and parenting, it can feel as if we just don’t have any more love to give. We feel all tapped out.
Then your child gets an eating disorder and, holy shit, how can you possibly handle any more? How can you possibly give out any more love, any more attention, any more anything in life? You’re on the hamster wheel, and the speed just increased 10x.
When this happens, you have a few choices. At opposite ends of the spectrum are: 1) try to give more without making any changes (and have a mental breakdown); or, 2) figure out how to make changes so that you can take more love in, which gives you more love to give out.
Wealthy people spend more money than poor people. It’s not because they are better at spending money; it’s because they have taken in more money, which gives them more money to spend. It’s the same with love. You can take in more love, and then you will be able to spend more love in your life.
Start thinking about your heart as a love bank account. When was the last time you made a deposit? Do you even know how to make a deposit into your own account (some people call this “self care”)?
When was the last time you asked someone else to make a deposit on your behalf? Does your partner know how to make a deposit? Have you ever told him or her?
There are people in the world who love you. Do they know how to make a deposit? Do they even know that you have needs, or have you assured them that you’re “fine,” and have no needs?
You will be amazed, once you start opening your heart and seeking ways to get love deposits, how easy it is to recharge your love bank account. The crazy thing is how effortless this becomes when you start to seek (and ask for) love.
Love is everywhere.
The more you get, the more you can give.
It’s that simple, and that hard.
Fight on, warrior!