Eating disorders can take a great deal from the whole family, whatever the age of the sufferer. As parents it can feel heartbreaking to see your child finding themselves in such a difficult place, the illness taking hold and their lives pulled apart. Furthermore, those with eating disorders tend to socially withdraw and hide their pain, leaving parents at a distance feeling entirely helpless.
August 11, 2021
Founder and Lead Clinician, Eating Disorder Recovery Coach, Registered Nutritional Therapist, and Master Practitioner of Eating Disorders.
After years of study and working with clients, I founded Natural Food Therapy to provide a multidisciplinary approach to eating disorders that centres around you. At Natural Food Therapy, we focus on the individual, as each person’s experience is completely unique.
Recovery is possible. And you deserve it.
Eating disorders can take a great deal from the whole family, whatever the age of the sufferer. As parents it can feel heartbreaking to see your child finding themselves in such a difficult place, the illness taking hold and their lives pulled apart. Furthermore, those who are suffering tend to socially withdraw and hide their pain, leaving parents at a distance feeling entirely helpless. No one ever teaches you how to respond to this, and without lived experience of an eating disorder yourself, it can be disorientating to hear your child speaking a language you don’t understand and seeing them go through this difficult battle.
Keep reading for guidance on how to best help a loved one with an eating disorder.
Firstly, having an eating disorder is no one’s fault and whilst social media, advertising and diet culture have a lot to answer for, an eating disorder is an illness and not a choice. It is so important not to blame yourself and can be incredibly helpful to reach out to support groups with others whose loved ones are suffering also. Secondly, despite the overwhelming desire to do so, this is not about fixing your child, but supporting them through the healing process and being part of their journey towards freedom and peace.Let’s take a look at a few steps you can take to support your child in their eating disorder recovery and help them in understanding that they are not alone.
Often those in recovery feel that people do not understand what they are going through. The more you can understand about the illness, the more you can be part of their recovery. Often those closest to the sufferer become shut out due to lack of understanding of the illness, increasing the distance between you and your loved one. Telling someone to “just eat” is like telling someone with clinical depression to just be happy. With this in mind, taking the time to learn about the eating disorder affecting your loved one, can make all the difference to your ability to support them. More importantly try not to make assumptions about the eating disorder and instead, seek to find out about their personal experience.
Therapy is a challenging process which requires hard work, trust and vulnerability. It can be a long journey, and requires frequent contact with a trained professional. Naturally, an important factor in recovery is that the sufferer connects with their therapist and trusts them enough to open up about what they are going through. It can be easy for your protective instinct to kick in, and you may understandably want to take control of the recovery process and choose for your child, instead of with them. Instead, try to empower your loved one and involve them in the process of choosing an eating disorder specialist . Whilst doing so, ask them if they connect with the approach of the prospective therapist, and let them know that it is their choice.
Watching a child suffer is any parent’s worst nightmare, and it’s only natural and human to want to ease their pain, but sometimes, we can actually collude with their disorder unintentionally in our efforts to help. As a mother or father, there is nothing more natural than wanting to protect your loved one from the negative consequences of the destructive eating disorder behaviours, but in the long-term this can be detrimental to treatment.
Whether you find yourself watching closely at meal times, keeping certain foods out of the house or ignoring what’s happening altogether, one of the best ways to help someone with an eating disorder is try to be aware of your personal response to their behaviours. Therapy is a family project and whilst your loved one will have to make many changes themselves, there are lots of ways that you can work alongside their therapist to help as well. Instead of you guessing how best to support them, ask how you can help.
Whilst you may not be suffering from an eating disorder yourself, sometimes we can unknowingly perpetuate dangerous narratives about food, body image and self-worth. Firstly, don’t beat yourself up if this is the case, as we live in a society where television, social media and diet culture constantly peddle toxic ideas about weight and dieting – it is hard to be immune to this prevalent messaging. With this in mind, be the change you want to see in your loved one and avoid discussing fad diets and reading magazines which critique peoples bodies or promote unhealthy image goals.
Additionally, avoid discussing your own weight and body image in their company, even if it’s in an attempt to comfort them, such as “I would love to have your figure”. Naturally, this is not an overnight process, and it is hard to unlearn the messaging we have been programmed to repeat. By accepting your own body and forging a healthier relationship with food, you will be setting a great example and supporting their recovery.
Aim to regulate your own language when discussing sensitive or related issues. For example, saying that you need to “run off” a dessert you have eaten, even jokingly or in passing, could trigger anxiety in a sufferer and reinforce the belief that food needs to be earned or purged. Sometimes language can be harmful in more subtle ways also. Even well-intentioned comments may be twisted by the sufferer’s eating disorder voice into something critical: “You are looking healthier” may be heard as “You have put on so much weight” and “Get well soon” could be heard as “You are not trying hard enough, get better quickly”.
To avoid this, reassure your loved one that you understand how challenging this is, and remind them that you are proud of them for taking action frequently. In the context of treatment, saying your loved one looks “healthier” or “well” can often be taken as meaning they have put on weight. With this in mind, compliment them on something other than their weight or body image, such as an accessory or their performance at work or school.
Lastly, whilst it is important to be there for your loved one, it is imperative for you to look after yourself too. Make sure you make time for your own self-care regime, whether that’s a warm bath with candles or an evening stroll.
Furthermore, your child’s eating disorder is not their fault, but it’s not yours either. As long as you love them, support them and continue to be an ambassador for their healing journey, you are playing a powerful part in their recovery. By looking after yourself, you are setting an admirable example and ensuring you are able to continue to be their greatest support. Young Minds have a helpline for parents of those suffering with mental illness, and Beat Eating Disorders has a page offering guidance to carers also.
Just by reading this article it is clear that you are taking wonderful steps towards supporting your loved one in their recovery. And rest assured, though difficult, rehabilitation with our trusted eating disorder clinic is possible. Below is a heartwarming testimonial from a parent of one of our recovery clients on how transformative treatment has been for the whole family.
“Sasha has coached our daughter from a truly horrid low point with her eating disorder to a far, far better place over the past few months. Her highly attentive and engaging therapy plan has provided incredible motivation, energy, education, psychological & emotional support to our daughter and to us as a family. Our daughter is now well into recovery and, as a parent previously in despair, I am delighted and relieved that we chose Sasha to help us all through to this point and beyond ! Lastly I have to add that Sasha is one of the most caring, engaging, skilful and inspiring professionals I have ever dealt with. Thank you so very much!!”