No parent wants their child to struggle with a disorder as devastating as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder.
But each year, thousands of parents find themselves waging war against a disorder that has consumed both their child and their family.
Although you can’t force anyone to change their behaviors or beliefs, parental support is essential to a child overcoming an eating disorder. Here are a few ways parents can help their child win the battle:
1. Be Understanding. More and more, scientific research suggests that eating disorders – and their symptoms, such as negativity, perfectionism, and a need for control – have a strong genetic component. This means that if your child is struggling with an eating disorder, it is likely that you can relate to their battle, or at least understand their disordered thinking, poor body image, or issues with low self-esteem.
In her book, The Eating Disorder Solution, Barbara Cole, MFT, Psy.D., explains the need for families to openly discuss disordered thinking patterns:
The healthiest thing families can do for someone who is suffering with an eating disorder is to first educate themselves as to the well-meaning history of where control, negativity and perfectionism originated from. They must then together discuss ways in which their own beliefs and practices express an overgrowth of these concepts, change their own personal behaviors in order to avoid coming across as hypocritical, and finally, gently undo the passing from one generation to the next of the message that more control, more negatively and more perfectionism is better.
Even if you can’t relate to your child’s struggle, educate yourself on eating disorder causes, symptoms, and treatments as much as possible. Through online and book reading, support groups, and professional assistance, you can show your child how much you care and how committed you are to confronting this disease.
Often, the greatest gift parents can give a child with an eating disorder is making an effort to make change within themselves before expecting their child to change. Having a good attitude and being a healthy role model will make the treatment process much smoother, and the recovery long-lasting.
There is no such thing as offering too much support, encouragement, and understanding to an individual suffering from an eating disorder. Of course, being understanding and encouraging doesn’t mean giving up on treatment when the victim wavers in her commitment to recovery. Rather, it means staying positive and supportive even when challenges arise along the way.
2. Take a Team Approach. Overcoming an eating disorder may be one of the most difficult challenges your child will ever face. Often, the eating disorder has been building strength since childhood, manifesting in low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, poor body image, or efforts to achieve perfection or conversely, giving up entirely on achieving one’s potential. Your son or daughter’s best chance for recovery is a unified treatment team, consisting of family members, medical doctors, nutritionists, and eating disorder specialists who all understand the treatment method being utilized and have joined forces against the disorder.
According to Dr. Cole, “ … to fight an eating disorder, each member of a family must decide whether they will commit to being either an ally or an enemy of the eating disorder.” Those who wish to join the team that fights against the ating disorder must agree to be “of one mind and one single strategy” in order to best serve their loved one.
“ … [A]nybody who holds themselves as separate from the team will actually be utilized by the e/d toward its own dark goal of usurping more thought territory and finally be a part of the demise of the person actually suffering from the effects of losing the war against the e/d,” warns Dr. Cole.
Stop Fighting the Eating Disorder with Common Sense. The malnourishment caused by an eating disorder doesn’t just affect the physical body. It also causes neurological changes and shifts in perception, resulting in malnourished thinking.
According to Dr. Cole, families often make the mistake of battling a loved one’s eating disorder with “healthy normal common sense.” They may try to help their loved one by telling her how thin she is or how good she looks, or by making any number of valid observations about the victim’s disordered thought patterns or eating habits.
But the malnourished mind requires a different approach. Dr. Cole believes treatment providers and family members must instead “fight fire with fire” and learn to speak the language of the eating disorder. By building a network of support around the victim and using the tools and language provided by the treatment program, the family has the best chance to beat the eating disorder.
Avoid Negativity. We are surrounded by negative messages about our bodies and ourselves in the media, and these messages are often confirmed and validated by people in our lives. For an eating disorder sufferer, this negativity has been deeply internalized. Any additional negativity, or perceived negativity, will merely reinforce the eating disorder. Thus, parents should avoid giving any negative feedback, or making comments or giving advice that is likely to be construed as negative by the eating disorder victim.
Dr. Cole explains, “ … [N]ot a single negative or neutral word should be offered for the person with an e/d to experience or hear in any way. While positive words or statements will not immediately heal someone with an e/d, offering any negative or neutral words or statements will actually ‘feed’ the e/d so that it can grow.”
Even slight innuendo, constructive criticism, and suggestive facial expressions can be construed by the eating disorder sufferer as negativity and confirmation of her lack of worth. Also avoid making comparisons to other people, engaging in deep conversations about the past or future, or touching on difficult memories or highly emotional topics. Dr. Cole’s rule of thumb is “If in doubt, leave it out.” If something you say can be construed as negative, you do more harm saying it than you do leaving it out.
3. Get Help Right Away. If you have noticed any of the signs of an eating disorder in your child, including stubbornness or resistance together with physical and behavior symptoms, get help right away. Eating disorders are among the most powerful, consuming, and fatal of all mental health issues, and the price of waiting is simply too high.
Dr. Cole advises parents and family members to be on the lookout for the following warning signs, among others:
- Difficulty receiving nutrition, compliments, favors, love, attention, time, or money;
- Preoccupation with body, weight, calories, food, or nutrition;
- Wearing loose or baggy clothing;
- Intensely competing, or an extreme need to avoid competition with others;
- Recent or past trauma such as losing a job, divorce or death of a loved one, or being subjected to acts of violence;
- Compulsive exercising, or taking laxatives or diet pills; and
- Physical signs of distress, including bloating, heart problems, fainting, tooth and gum erosion, or weight loss or weight gain.
“Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that caring, well-meaning people can make when attempting to help someone with an e/d is to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” says Dr. Cole. If you suspect a problem, listen to your intuition. Consult a medical doctor about physical symptoms and research online or seek referrals for effective eating disorder treatment programs. Residential treatment facilities like The Victorian of Newport Beach have helped hundreds of women overcome eating disorders and go on to enjoy fulfilling careers and lives.
Parents can be one of the greatest allies in the battle against an eating disorder. Not only do parents know who their child truly is, before the eating disorder took up residence in their body and mind, but they also know their child’s experiences, strengths, and struggles better than anyone else. If your child is in the grips of one of these life-threatening disorders, get help and play an active role in your child’s recovery. Your child needs you now more than ever.