If you have ever loved a child who has struggled with an eating disorder, then you know that this illness evokes a lot of difficult emotions for both the caregiver and the sufferer. Nourishing our children is supposed to be something that comes easy and naturally, but that doesn't happen when you are dealing with an eating disorder. Everything changes when this beast becomes part of the family. Daily activities, school, relationships, family communication, meals, EVERYTHING…. It’s impossibly maddening and terrifying at the same time. Today I’m sharing with you the top 6 things I want every parent to understand as they navigate the recovery process with their kid.
#1 EATING DISORDERS ARE SERIOUS AND LIFE THREATENING
Just because the physical or emotional symptoms are not life threatening at the moment does not mean that you are not dealing with something very serious. If your child was diagnosed with an early stage of cancer, you wouldn’t say “they don’t look sick” or “it’s not that bad, let’s give it time to see if it gets better”. It’s important to understand that an eating disorder is much like an iceberg. The symptoms related to thoughts and emotions grow first, but remain largely unseen to those closest to the sufferer. An eating disorder becomes a serious issue long before a child looks "sick".
#2 LET GO OF BLAME, SHAME AND GUILT
This applies to both the child suffering from an eating disorder and their parents. You’re going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what caused this… what you may have done or missed, what your child may have done, etc. The reality is that we don’t fully know what causes an eating disorder, but we know it’s neurobiological. Shaming and blaming your child or yourself won’t help one bit. Focus your energy on the present and moving forward with recovery.
#3 UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR CHILD IS NOT THEIR EATING DISORDER
Your child is fighting a monster in their head every hour of the day. You are fighting that monster too. Tearful, anxious, rage filled meals are the product of the eating disorder and you have to remember that is what you are fighting. I often hear parents talk about how their child has perfect grades, or they make mature and responsible decisions in every other area of their life. It’s hard to understand why that same child cannot be calm and rational about eating and food choices. It’s important to remember that in those moments the eating disorder has taken hostage of your child’s brain. In the early stages of recovery, your child simply cannot stop that voice in their head and they need your support to fight against it. As treatment progresses, health improves and your child’s nutritional intake becomes more stabilized, they will start to recognize the voice of the eating disorder and be able to apply skills to minimize it and push it away.
#4 RECOVERY TAKES A VILLAGE
Depending on what level of care your child has started at, the recovery process comes with a team of professionals to help you through this journey. Optimally, your providers are all communicating with each other to make sure your appointments are as efficient and supportive as possible. But, the treatment team doesn’t stop with the professionals. In fact, I find that parents are the most valuable part of the treatment team and the support and resources they gather outside of the professional appointments can have a profound impact on the recovery process. If your child was suffering from cancer, you wouldn’t hide this from their siblings, extended family members, teachers, etc. You would let these people know so they can be part of the support chain. You see, this is where letting go of the shame and guilt around an eating disorder comes into play! Educating those who are closest to you and your child about what an eating disorder is and what you need from them for support can be incredibly helpful. Talk with your therapist about having a family meeting (or a few) to help the siblings understand what is going on and explore ways they can be supportive. I’ve had family sessions that included grandparents, close family friends, a nanny, etc. Your therapist is also an incredible resource for coordinating support for your child at school via speaking with the school counselor, teachers, nurse and even helping make recommendations for a formal plan of support if necessary. It’s about pulling in those people who are part of your family tribe to support you and your child through recovery. It truly does take a village! Use every bit of support you can get!
#5 RECOVERY HAS PEAKS AND VALLEYS
Recovery is not a smooth and linear process. There’s going to be good days, bad days and REALLY BAD DAYS. The goal is to keep pushing forward and not let one bad day (or moment) set the tone for the rest of the week, month or year. I wish I could give a timeline for recovery, but every journey has its own unique challenges and needs. Those hard moments provide an opportunity to analyze the impact of the eating disorder so that new skills can be applied to better manage those situations in the future. There’s a lot of trial and error in recovery and with each stage comes new challenges. For kids who have a lifelong pattern of perfectionism and high achievement, the bumpy road to recovery can be hard for them to accept. It’s important that they understand that you can’t do recovery “perfectly” and that hard days do not equate failure. I want your child to get to a point where they can comfortably talk about those hard moments without fear of being judged as failing at recovery. This is also key to their relapse prevention plan.
The best part of my job is that I get to work with exceptional kids. Seriously, these kids are amazing in so many ways! When they come to me, their “superpowers” have definitely been hijacked by the eating disorder. I always say that the goal of recovery is to help them be able to once again use their superpowers for good, not evil. Recovery is not about breaking your child’s spirit. And, it’s also not about fixing a “broken child”. Your child is not broken, their brain has been taken hostage by the eating disorder. Recovery allows them to re-harness those superpowers and channel all that energy into things that give their life meaning and mastery. This journey is scary, exhausting and frustrating, but the outcome can be incredibly beautiful. I’m always amazed when recovery reaches that point where I’m no longer speaking to the eating disorder and I finally get to “meet” the incredible kiddo I’ve been working with!