Parenting is a hard job. When you add in the work, time, patience, and care that it takes to support someone through an eating disorder—let alone your own child—it can sometimes feel like that hard job has become an impossible one. Certain parenting advice may be helpful, though, in supporting your child through their eating disorder and into recovery.
The Challenges of Parenting Someone with an Eating Disorder
Parenting any child brings its challenges, joys, and moments of deep pain. Parenting a child with an eating disorder, though, is infinitely more complex. Parents of children and teens with eating disorders have the same parenting responsibilities that characterize raising any child—mutual navigation of your child’s emerging independence, modeling coping behaviors, teaching self-soothing tools, and guiding them in a way that supports and transmits your values while also giving them the space to discover the world for themselves. There is also the added responsibility of navigating and supporting this child or adolescent through recognizing eating disorder behavior, accepting treatment, and hopefully through to recovery.
If you are the parent of a child with an eating disorder, you know these challenges well. Every step of supporting your child through their eating disorder requires high levels of patience and compassion, but it also requires you to be able to maintain and enforce treatment boundaries. Sometimes parenting a child with an eating disorder means being the bad guy. You have to be able to handle—or cope with—being the enforcer of the rules while also making space for your child to be heard and for their requests to be honored when appropriate and in the service of their recovery.
Those who are the parent of a child with an eating disorder are also likely to find themselves struggling with managing their teen’s behavioral outbursts and secretive behaviors. A child’s teen years are often marked by rebellion and challenging authority, but in the case of a child with an eating disorder, this rebellion phase can become more complex, and can even jeopardize your child’s recovery. Different kinds of lashing out, secretive, and rebellious behaviors that your child might engage in include:
- Hiding food in secret places in their room
- Throwing out packed lunch food once they reach school or leaving pieces of their meal in discrete places during transportation
- Sneaking exercise in late at night
- Recruiting friends to help them engage in eating behaviors
Perhaps the most painful lashing-out behavior is when your child blames you for forcing them to recover. In these moments, it’s important to remember that your child is likely to be suffering, and therefore likely to lash out in anger when confronted. They are not yet emotionally mature enough to handle it all, and so they may wind up blaming you. While you are certainly allowed to feel hurt by this kind of anger, this is the moment in which your status as an adult makes a difference. Take it. Take their blame, whether or not it’s warranted. One day, they will thank you for keeping them alive.
Some Advice and Tips
As is evident, raising a child while also helping that child to manage and recover from their eating disorder is no small feat. There are some actions you can take, though, to help support you through the process.
Connect with other parents and caregivers who are experiencing the same challenges.
Depending on what is available in your geographical area, your access to this kind of community may be limited. That being said, making an effort to connect with other parents—in person or online—who are also dealing with this same challenge can be very helpful for your own coping. Not only does this approach serve to widen your social support network, but it also gives you the space to air your grievances among others who are in similar circumstances. It also can potentially serve as another resource for discovering trusted treatment providers and obtaining first-hand information with local treatment centers.
Lean on your child’s treatment team
If your child is in any kind of treatment, that means that they have health professionals monitoring them. These health professionals are not only there to support your child. They are there to support you as well! Navigating the boundaries of this can be complex in certain situations—more complex with a therapist, for example, less complex with a nutritionist—and can also vary depending on your child’s comfort level. But utilizing your child’s treatment team in an ethical capacity can be beneficial for all involved.
Know that your child’s behavior is a part of an eating disorder
It’s important to remind yourself that this person that you’re parenting is struggling with a mental illness. They don’t have a lot of control over how they treat you, especially because they are likely to be nutrient-deprived and also in the midst of messy teenage hormones. Try your best not to take it personally if and when they say cruel or mean-spirited things to you. That anger is about their own anxiety. As the anxiety eases and your child gets the nutrition they need—in other words, as recovery progresses—you are likely to see these outbursts become less frequent.
Do your own work around your relationship with food and body
Children notice everything. How you treat your body and the commentary they hear about food from you makes its way into their own understanding of how they should relate to these things. If you can model a neutral relationship with food and your body, you can be a consistent presence of body trust in their lives.
Participate in advocacy
The reality is that no matter how many tips and tricks you as an individual parent may know, the problem of eating disorders is so much bigger than you and your child. The reality is that we live in a culture that promotes disordered eating and idolizes the thin ideal. It’s a wonder that everyone isn’t struggling with an eating disorder. Engaging in activism allows you to do work that can help prevent eating disorders. Volunteering and becoming more involved in eating-disorder work outside of your individual experience is also one way that many cope with the awful reality of diet culture. Advocacy work can also be an important part of changing the treatment landscape. Research suggests that treatment that includes the family has a better outcome, but there is still work to be done to convince researchers to consider this when proposing new treatment possibilities.
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About the Author
Ashley M. Seruya is a social work student, virtual assistant, and content creator specializing in eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, and weight stigma. Learn more about her work at ashleymseruya.com or on her Instagram at @fatpositivetherapy.