If I Was a Parent (of Someone with an Eating Disorder)

Here are my recommendations for parents of someone with anorexia/bulimia.

Posted Dec 21, 2011

The holidays are here, and I've been thinking about what it would be like to be the parent of a kid with an eating disorder. While the holiday season can be difficult for those with eating disorders, it can also take a large toll on family members. I've never been a parent, but I have dealt with an eating disorder, saw how my parents responded to me, and have seen other parents struggling with their situation as well.

If parents came to me for advice (for consistency sake, we'll say it's a kid who's a female), this is what I would recommend:

1. It's fine to set boundaries. At the same time, realize that the stricter the boundaries are, the more likely your child is to rebel.

Just because your child has an eating disorder doesn't mean you need to give them permission to act any way they want. Sure, you're not going to be able to stop their eating disorder just because you want to, but you still have the right - and responsibility - to set boundaries.

For instance, one of my parents' rules - sometime spoken but always implied - was that I couldn't purge in relatives' houses. Try as they might, they couldn't keep me from purging in their house, nor could they keep me from bingeing at family members' houses, but they could put their foot down about me purging in other people's homes. That rule didn't always stop me, but I definitely made more of an effort not to than I would have at home.

On the other hand, when they made more restrictive rules (only eat this much, don't eat that, only exercise this long), I'd often feel resentful, constricted, and frequently rebel.

So parents, plan what your boundaries are. Make them clear to your kid. Consider if they're as reasonable as can be (for someone who has an unreasonable disease) and if you are willing to follow through with them.

2. Always try to keep the doors of communication open. You might not like what your kid has to say, but at least you'll know.

  The behaviors your child is doing are very likely destructive, but if she is enslaved to her eating disorder, she'll do them whether she shares with you or not. Therefore, if you can, open the door to communication. Don't use it as a time to pry, but as a time to listen.

For instance, let's say your child comes to you and says, "Every time I purge, I feel like I'm going to faint." Obviously you're not going to want to hear that, but whether you hear it or not, your child is still having that symptom. The only thing that would be different is that your child might feel like she can't tell you or anyone, hide deeper into her secrecy, and get worse.

If you think it would be too difficult to listen to your child talk about hurting herself, encourage her to find a mentor or friend that she can share with. Make it clear to her that it's important she tells someone.

Understand that even if you do open the line of communication, your child might not take it. Still, you can try. Some kids will not only be open, but they'll be grateful for the opportunity to share those struggles with you.

3. If there's a behavior you exhibit or something you say that triggers your child, consider stopping, getting rid of, or changing it.

I'm not saying that you should change your whole lifestyle. After all, that's pretty harsh and could lead you to feel even more resentful than you already do regarding your child's eating disorder. However, be aware of things you do that can trigger your kid and consider altering them.

For instance, get rid of your scale. Don't hide it - trash it. Regardless of whether your child is bulimic or anorexic, it's destructive. The scale is usually a crucial tool a person uses to measure the "success" of her eating disorder.

If your child is bulimic, don't cook a whole bunch of binge food. I could never understand why my mom (bless her heart), who made a concerted effort not to enable me, would hide her candy, yet would make three or four rich deserts every holiday. I'm not saying you shouldn't make anything that might be triggering - that wouldn't be fair to everyone else at the house. However, if you've noticed your child binges and purges on certain dishes, consider only making one of them. Another option is to ask family members to take the dishes home at the end of the night or, if you're going to a relative's house, leaving your extras with them.

Limit the diet food you have in your house. If you have a cabinet filled with Slim Fast, Special K, and 100-calorie bags of popcorn, consider restricting it to one shelf in your cupboard.

Don't talk about your desire to lose weight. It doesn't matter if you want to drop three pounds or thirty - it's not appropriate. Also, don't criticize your body in front of your kid. You might not be pleased with your physical state, but your child has enough triggers without your physical insecurities needing to be one of them.

4. Do not enable your kid.

  People who have eating disorders can be manipulative, but don't give in to the manipulation. Let's say that you have a post-high school kid who lives with you and says if you don't drive her to the store to get her binge foods, she'll walk there in the middle of the night. Let her walk. Of course you would never want your child to get hurt, but she's already hurting herself as it is. Enabling will just feed the eating addiction.

Imagine if it were a situation with parents of a kid who has a drug problem. The kid tries to hold her parents hostage by saying she'll sell her body if her parents don't give her money for drugs. Well, she could lose her life by pimping herself out, but she could also lose her life by accidentally overdosing.

Obviously parents desire to do whatever they can to keep their kid from feeling unnecessary pain. As with all of these suggestions I mention, I can't say what I would do in the situation. I hope, though, that I would stand firm, let my child beg, borrow, and steal - end up in jail, creating a bottom, so she gets her butt in treatment. As long as I'm enabling her, what motivation will she have to get treatment? She has a supply to her drug of choice, and her supplier is called Mom. I'd rather be the one that pushes her to point where she has nowhere to go but up, rather than enabling her until she dies.

5. Don't beat yourself up.

I've noticed that parents have a tendency to completely absolve themselves of blame or completely blame themselves; I haven't found either to be accurate. You might have done things that influenced your child's eating habits, but more than likely there are a hundred things beyond your control that also contributed to it. Beating yourself up isn't healthy for you because you're stuck in the past, and isn't healthy for your child because she could very well internalize your guilt.

Instead of castigating yourself, the best thing to do is look at what you can do now to positively influence things. You can't change the past, but you can make healthy choices and have a beneficial role in the present and future.


6. Don't give your child guilt trips. At the same time, you don't have to hide your feelings.

There is nothing that a guilt trip will do that will be positive. If you are a decent parent, your child will already feel guilty about hurting you. Giving a guilt trip won't stop the eating disorder, but it might make the situation worse.

For instance, when people guilt tripped me, I felt even more horrible than I was feeling before. Instead of motivating me to get better, it did exactly opposite. I wanted to punish myself for the pain I was inflicting on others, so I would hurt myself even more in an attempt try to numb the extra guilt I was feeling.

You don't have to fake it or act like you're not hurt or worried, because that's unrealistic and you wouldn't be taking care of yourself. That said, try to refrain from the "Why are you hurting me so much?" "You're breaking my heart," "You're killing me" spiel. Instead, you can say something like, "It seems that you're really struggling," or "You seem like you're in a lot of pain. Is there something I can do to help?" Don't make it about you; that's what a support system is for. Speaking of which,

7. Find support.

If you have a relative with an eating disorder, join a family support group. If you can't find a physical meeting in your area, there are plenty online. Another option is to find a spiritual support group. You might want to see a therapist. Maybe you find that the best thing for you is to talk to old friends. Maybe you want to try all options!

The thing is don't do it alone. Find others who are going through the same thing you're dealing with. You can share ways to cope and give each other hope. When you feel like screaming and punching the wall, you'll be able to talk with someone who's experienced or is experiencing the same thing. Just as it's important for people with eating disorders to have support groups, it's important for family members to have them too.

8. Take care of yourself.

Your whole life can't be about your kid with an eating disorder. You can provide strength and hope by taking care of yourself.

What do you like to do? Listen to music? Read? Practice yoga? Play with your dog? Write in your journal? Do it! Participate in those activities that make you happy. They'll not only help you stay sane during these trying times, but also help you be strong so you can offer support to your child.

9. Have hope!

It might seem that, while you're in the thick of things, it'll never get better. It can - and often, it does. At the end of the day, most people I've know who had bulimia and/or anorexia wanted to get better eventually - just maybe "not right now" (because they were scared or their eating disorder served a purpose). Still, there's hope for everyone. I'm sure my parents felt hopeless from time to time, but I'm proof that things can get better; they're proof that things can get better.

It's rough and it's hard, but hang in there! There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Parents: What are your thoughts? What tips would you offer other parents whose kid has an eating disorder? What have you found works or doesn't work?

About the Author

Adia Colar

Adia Colar is a publicist for New Harbinger Publications and a freelance writer.

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