If you have a teen who is struggling with an eating disorder, you know it can be overwhelming, frustrating, lonely, scary, and sometimes feel like a full-time job. Your teen may be reacting angrily one day and the next day melt on the floor in tears.
Eating disorders can disrupt family and work life, create stress in relationships and be a financial hardship. Here are some tips to weather the storm:
1. Don’t blame yourself. Parents are not the primary cause of eating disorders (Le Grange et al. 2009). Environmental and biological factors, personality type and perfectionism all contribute.
2. Learn as much as you can. Eating disorders are hard to understand. The public and even many well-respected medical and mental health professionals still don’t have a good understanding of eating disorders. Our society’s excessive focus on weight loss and fad dieting makes understanding eating disorders that much harder.
Reading books on eating disorders is a great way to become informed. One of my favorite books for parents to read is Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder by Janet Treasure et al.
3. Take stock in family patterns that may be reinforcing the problem. Family expectations and communication styles may be exacerbating the eating disorder. Family members who are very food-, weight- or exercise-focused also may be reinforcing the disorder. The standard of care for eating disorder treatment includes a family therapy component (Le Grange et al. 2009). If your family is not already participating in family therapy, talk to your teen’s treatment team about the possibility of adding family therapy.
4. You are going to make mistakes. Talking to a teen is a challenge for most parents. Trying to figure out the right way to talk to your teen with an eating disorder can feel outright impossible at times. The road to recovery can be long and confusing so you are bound not to say or do all the right things along the way.
Go easy on yourself and practice modeling owning mistakes and making amends. This is a opportunity to model to your teen that it is OK not to be perfect all the time.
Eating disorder recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Be realistic about how much time it will take for your teen to recover. Sometimes it takes years. Take care of yourself.
Self-care is a way to recharge your battery so you can continue to support you teen in recovery. Self-care can include going out with friends, getting a message, spending time outside, or participating in hobbies. Often people think they are being selfish or fear they don’t have time for self-care. Part of what your teen will learn in treatment is the importance of self-care, so taking time for self-care is an opportunity for you to model healthy behaviors for your teen.
Get support. Online forums, individual counseling and talking with friends and family are all ways to get support. Frequently the automatic reaction is not to talk about the eating disorder for fear that it won’t help or it will make things even worse somehow. Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be a lonely place. Getting support can help reduce feelings of isolation, hopelessness and shame.
Le Grange, D., Lock, J., Loeb, K., & Nicholls, D. (2009). Academy for Eating Disorders Position Paper: The role of family in eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43 (1), 1-5.