When your child has an eating disorder like bulimia, binge eating disorder, or anorexia, you are not to blame, and you need professional support to help him or her heal. The resources we provide are in addition to the care and guidance you receive from your treatment team. We are not medical professionals – we are parenting experts who offer ideas and suggestions about how to provide more love to children who have eating disorders. Please consult with your child’s treatment team before implementing any concepts that may impact the treatment plan.
Below are the underlying principles we suggest when providing more love to your child.
Human beings want to belong to groups of families and friends. We are naturally driven to seek others’ understanding and want to connect with people who we care about and who care about us. Often during adolescence, it is very challenging to connect with a teenager. Teenagers are actively separating from their parents as they strike out into adulthood. This is a natural and healthy part of their development.
But don’t take their efforts to separate from you personally or as a sign that they don’t want to belong to your family or feel a deep connection with you as their parents. Find ways of working with your teen to connect on a deep, meaningful level. Talk to his/her treatment team to determine how best you can be a part of their recovery and support him/her throughout the process. There is a fine line between giving your child the space to heal and grow and being connected with him/her.
The eating disorder is a part of your child’s life right now, but it is not who they are. They are still your children, and they still want to feel like they are a part of a loving family.
Unconditional positive regard
Unconditional positive regard is a psychological concept that was developed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Its premise is to provide basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does.
To give your child unconditional positive regard, you must recognize that no matter what she/he does or says, you will still hold her/him in your esteem and love her/him regardless. This is easier said than done, because you may be justifiably upset about your child’s behavior, but you must still believe that your child is intrinsically good.
If your child has an eating disorder, that disorder may make her/him do things that feel terrible to you. Many therapists work with families to externalize the eating disorder so that parents and family members can maintain positive regard for the individual, rather than feeling personally affronted by the negative actions associated with the eating disorder.
When you have compassion for someone, you feel, or at least recognize, their pain experience and seek to make it better. While this may sound like a no-brainer when it comes to parenting, many of us behave unconsciously in non-compassionate ways with our children, most often when we believe there are rules that must be followed. These rules are often subconscious and authoritarian in nature. For example, if your son is crying, you may become deeply uncomfortable and tell him to stop. You believe you are telling him to stop for his own good, but in fact you are telling him to stop because you are uncomfortable with his tears.
When your child has an eating disorder, he/she has created some unhealthy but (to him/her) necessary coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms take the form of food, but they run much deeper into feelings and emotions. If you as a parent focus only on the food aspect, you miss the deeper opportunity to have compassion for the feelings your child is desperately trying to metabolize. Extending compassion can be extremely trying, but is also extremely important in healing.
When you accept someone, you accept them completely as they are today, not for who they were before or who you want them to be. It’s not that you can’t have fond memories or high hopes, but you recognize that the person standing in front of you is exactly where he/she needs to be right now, without judgement. Parental judgement and criticism are extremely painful for our children. They are neurologically programmed to seek our approval and acceptance, and experience deep wounds when a parent judges them as unworthy – even when that judgement is unspoken and/or unconsciously bestowed.
When your child has an eating disorder, you have very valid feelings of frustration and pain and suffering as a parent. You are allowed to feel all of your feelings – in fact, it’s a very good idea to get a therapist for yourself to support you through your child’s healing from an eating disorder. But you must also consciously accept your child as he/she is right now, today. Don’t try to hold onto how you think he/she used to be. Or how he/she was last summer. Or what you want her to be based on your experiences at this age. Your child is a unique person who is having a unique life. You can want her/him to heal from an eating disorder while simultaneously accepting her/him exactly as-is.
It is fairly common to say, rather dismissively, “oh, she’s just doing that for attention,” or “oh, look who wants attention right now!” In fact, many of us even say it about phases we ourselves went through as children. But the fact is that to seek attention is to actively ask a parent to “attend to me.” And the first job of any parent is to attend to their child. When they are infants it’s pretty easy – you keep them clean, fed and warm. As they grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge exactly how you should attend to your child. When is it being too permissive? When do you need to draw boundaries?
Every family must find their own way through this, especially when there is an eating disorder added to the mix, but attending to your child’s needs is something that you should feel confident about. If there is a voice in your head saying you should do something else, ignore it. If anyone other than your child’s treatment team tells you how, when and what sort of attention you should give your child, do not mindlessly heed their advice. Carefully consider whether your child needs and deserves your attention right now.
Attending to your child’s needs doesn’t always mean giving into what she/he wants, but it does mean paying attention to her/his wants and consciously exploring how you can meet those needs – spoken and unspoken – as a parent.
We live in a culture that tells us that the only way to have a happy and healthy life is to have a thin body. Women, especially, are victim to constant body shaming by the multi-billion-dollar diet industry. But men are increasingly facing body shaming as well. Body shaming and dieting are both strongly correlated with eating disorders.
The body positive movement is based on these facts: diets don’t improve health, and diets can harm health. Body positivity, or at the very least body neutrality, means that you understand and truly believe that your child’s shape and size is perfectly acceptable and healthy (this excludes someone who is medically compromised and is severely underweight).
There is a great movie called Embrace that presents the body positive story very well. Watch the movie, or even just watch the trailer, to get an idea of how to build your body neutrality. Visit the Healthy At Every Size (HAES) website and learn the facts behind dieting and the many negative impacts of dieting on our bodies, minds and spirits.
Being body neutral means that you do not comment on your child’s appearance, whether positively or negatively. There is obvious shame and danger in calling your child fat, but you may be surprised to learn that positive reinforcement for losing weight, getting leaner in response to a growth spurt, or adding weight following anorexia can also be very dangerous. Make sure that your child’s treatment team understands the HAES principles and work with them to provide the care and feedback appropriate for your own child’s eating disorder treatment plan.