Eating disorders are complex conditions – and recovery can be just as complex. It’s not as simple as encouraging someone with anorexia to gain weight or forcibly preventing someone with bulimia from vomiting. First, the person with the eating disorder has to accept that there is a problem, and want to make changes.
Experts stress that it’s vital for parents and other supporters to try to understand the complicated thought process behind the disorder. On the one hand they are desperate to break free and determined to seek help. On the other, the prospect of living without the disorder fills them with terror. So, in a matter of minutes your child could flit from wanting help to rejecting it.
Eating disorders can have such a powerful influence that they refer to their disorder having a ‘voice’. The voice can be harsh, critical, demanding, persuasive and extremely persistent; it is very real and very frightening. And it is particularly loud when parents and healthcare professionals threaten it.
It’s equally important to remember that your child did not choose to become unwell or intend to worry you so much. With the right treatment and the right support, disorders can be beaten and your child can be well again.
Getting help to beat eating disorders
The sooner someone gets help, the better their chances of a quick recovery. If you suspect something is wrong, talk to your child. Choose a good time – (avoid mealtimes and interruptions from others) – and stay calm. Try to ‘voice concerns’ rather than having an out-and-out confrontation. In fact, in your initial chat, you don’t even need to mention eating disorders. Simply let your child know that you are worried about their physical and emotional health.
Whatever reaction you get – anger, disbelief, shock, amusement, denial, relief or even complete silence – you’ve made a start. You may need to accept that your child isn’t ready to admit to a problem yet. But let them know they can come to you when they are ready. In the meantime, gather information and research. Make an appointment with your GP – even if your child refuses to attend with you or admit there is a problem. Your GP may be able to help your child recognise that they need help.
Tips to help you deal with your child’s eating disorder
Don’t offer bribes to encourage your child to eat or not binge. Treats and shared activities are an important part of normal family life but they will not make your child’s illness disappear. Teenagers will sense their parents’ desperation and play on it, but they cannot recover to order.
Keep normal family routines: for example, pocket money, hobbies, spending time together.
Try not to blame yourself for your child’s disorder. Accept that you may never know what triggered it. Simply accept that your child has an illness and focus on recovery.
Work together as a family. Your child needs consistency and you need to prepare yourself for the fact that the eating disorder may lead them to lie about their behaviour or try to manipulate others.
There may be temper tantrums, accusations, resentment. Try to avoid falling into the ‘good cop’, bad cop scenario with your partner (one of you being lenient and the other strict).
Avoid unnecessary comments about food, appearance or weight. Ask open questions like: ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘How’s your day been?’ rather than closed, confrontational questions like: ‘What did you eat for lunch?’ or ‘Have you just made yourself sick?’
Find out as much as you can about eating disorders. This will help you to understand your child’s behaviour, feelings and mood swings – and accept that there are certain aspects of the illness that will seem illogical and hard to understand. For example, your child may insist they are fat when, in fact, they are severely underweight. You do not have to agree with them – but try to accept that this is what they feel and believe.
Carry on eating normally as a family. It’s important that your child sees you and the family enjoying food and normal helpings.
Keep including your child in family activities and social arrangements (even if they don’t join in) and try to build up their self esteem.
Keep telling your child that you love them.
The four stages of recovery
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation: denying that there is a problem.
Stage 2: Contemplation: recognising the damage the eating disorder is doing but being daunted by the thought of change. They are literally in two minds about whether they want to recover or not.
Stage 3: Determination and action: ready to accept help, and begin working towards recovery.
Stage 4: Maintenance: this is the most challenging stage of all as your child has to learn to manage life without their old coping strategy.
Recovery is a process, not an event. Moving from one stage to another can take a long time and your child may have to go through some or even all of these stages several times before recovering fully. You cannot hurry or force your child through any of these stages. However, they do need to feel supported and strengthened by your love, encouragement and understanding.
Lois Bridges is Ireland’s only dedicated Residential and Daypatient care facility solely for treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorders.
If you need advice for yours or a loved one’s eating disorder treatment – we would welcome your call. Please contact us confidentially on (01) 839 6147