As a parent, it is your responsibility to look out for the physical and emotional wellbeing of your children. But when your child is struggling with an eating disorder, this often means taking extra precautions and learning the ways that you can support their treatment journey, which can be one of the most difficult parenting challenges. It is not always easy to know the best strategies for eating disorder treatment at home and you may feel helpless, confused, or frustrated at times. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we want to talk about some tips that may help parents successfully navigate treatment with a child who is struggling with an eating disorder.
The first step is becoming educated on the issue. Due to the complexities and nuances surrounding eating disorders, it is often confusing to recognize, understand, and talk about them. Take some time to do research on eating disorders, read our blogs online, talk with your child’s therapist or doctor, and stay informed on treatment options. Knowing the basics of the disorder, such as your child’s unique triggers, symptoms, indicators of progress, and signs of relapses, often eliminates much of the confusion a parent experiences during treatment. A comprehensive understanding of the disorder will prevent you from panicking and give you a clearer picture of what you can do to support the needs of your child.
Especially during the early stages of an eating disorder, it is common for the person who is struggling to deny that there is anything wrong. Your child may also cling to the false belief that they can overcome the disorder on their own and return to a “normal” way of eating. But this is dangerously short-sighted. Ignoring the condition and avoiding treatment can worsen symptoms. If your child has an eating disorder, it’s important to keep talking about your concerns even if they don’t want to listen. It is equally important to be gentle and careful with your words, never judgmental or critical. It’s your job to be loving, accepting, and understanding.
Provide emotional support.
Encourage your child to talk to you about anything that’s on their mind, openly discussing and validating their feelings without judgement or criticism. Make sure they understand that it is always safe to talk to you, and do your best to be an attentive listener, while expressing love and understanding. This is extremely important because people with eating disorders often experience a sense of shame and guilt, which can be pervasive and reinforce the disordered behavior. Parents can play a direct role in helping to reduce feelings of shame and guilt by providing consistent, non-judgmental emotional support.
Create structure at mealtimes.
When it comes to family meals, it is important to structure meals as much as possible. Eating disorders often cause the person to desire eating at their own pace (often in secrecy) and dictate their own disordered rules around eating. Therefore, structuring family mealtimes and setting the expectation for the person to eat together with the family is essential. Begin by setting a regular schedule and telling the child when to expect mealtimes. Short snack breaks throughout the day can also help create a sense of consistency. For some people, turning off the television or deciding to be free of technology during meals is helpful. For others, having some distraction while they are eating might help them to not worry so much about the food they are eating. Experiment with different strategies for eating until you find what works best for your child.
Be aware of your own attitudes toward food and body image.
Unfortunately, many children are subject to pressure from their family to eat, or not eat, certain foods, which can lead to the internalization of the messages they receive and the development of disordered eating behaviors. Parents must be aware of the words they use to refer to food when discussing nutrition with their children and when speaking about their own dietary choices. It’s important to avoid terms like “good” or “bad” when talking about food – no food in and of itself is necessarily “good” or “bad.” Instead, parents can focus on encouraging nutritional choices and conversations about the importance of food for overall physical, mental, and emotional health.
When your child makes even the smallest progress in managing their eating disorder, celebrating it can make a huge impact on their mental health and outlook. Acknowledging small accomplishments – such as going one full day without disordered eating behaviors – will provide an emotional boost, which in turn can provide the person with more motivation to make the same progress in the days to come. Verbal recognition is an easy way to show support for those in recovery, for instance by reiterating how proud the individual should be for overcoming the behaviors or providing praise for their dedication to heal. This will help build momentum and determination to overcome the disorder and ultimately, commit more wholeheartedly to the recovery process.
Promote lifelong self-care for your child.
Lastly, parents should equip their child with self-care skills and encourage coping mechanisms. This can include modeling what self-care looks like, openly talking about stress relief and relaxation, encouraging healthy routines, initiating positive family activities, normalizing a wide range of emotions, and providing information on mental health in general. Lifelong self-care will help ensure that progress is maintained so that your child can avoid relapses and truly lead a life of personal fulfillment and empowerment.
Eating disorder treatment can be challenging for parents to navigate, but understanding the tips outlined here can definitely make the process easier. Eating disorders are incredibly complex and each individual is different, so it is important to keep in mind that recovery may take a different amount of time for each person and your child’s journey will be unique to them. Having patience and compassion, being understanding and non-judgemental, and being your child’s strongest advocate can be life-changing for your family. At River Oaks Psychology, we want to help encourage this process and ensure your whole family is getting the support they need. We would be honored to work with you!
Written by Lauren Presutti