Watching a loved one suffer from an eating disorder may be one of the most helpless and excruciating things one can go through.
A person who has never had an eating disorder may think the sufferer is choosing to participate in toxic behaviors. However, that could not be farther from the truth.
While I was in treatment I heard the saying “genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger”. Some may question this. But in my experience this statement is dead on.
There’s a history of addiction, depression, and eating disorders in my family of origin and my extended family. It was inevitable that I would be pre-disposed to contracting an eating disorder. The circumstances in my youth and adulthood set the cards up perfectly for ED to make his move early on.
Being candid from day one of my recovery has opened doors for me to speak to others about the disease and the recovery process. Now two years in recovery, I’m contacted more and more by parents who want to know how they can help their child who is suffering from an eating disorder.
So, here are 4 practical tips for parents of eating disorder sufferers:
1. It’s not your fault
I am giving you a BIG virtual hug right now and looking you straight in the eyes… It’s not your fault.
Eating disorders are a perfect storm. They have to do with genetics (not your fault), environment (not your fault), societal pressures (not your fault), and many other factors that are unique to every sufferer.
Honestly- there was a time I blamed my mom for my disorder. I was angry and brash. I was hurtful. But two years into my recovery and now being fully recovered, I have apologized to her for putting all the blame on her.
And as a parent, I understand feeling responsible for every cut, bump, bruise, etc. that our children experience. We think, “If I had just done ________, none of this would have happened.”
Truth is, we are human. Parents are allowed to be human, too.
Just know this: regardless of how you or your child feels at this moment, it’s not all your fault.
2. Don’t try to “talk sense” into them
Eating disorders do not respond to logic. There is something called the wise mind, which in DBT is defined that place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap.
Linehan states, “Wise mind is that part of each person that can know and experience truth.”
That wise mind is stifled by eating disorder thoughts and rules that have become the sufferer’s truth. Getting frustrated with and trying to shove logic down the throat of a person who has an eating disorder will only cause tension, anger, and distance.
Instead of trying to “talk sense” into your loved one, ask questions.
When my husband was telling me “You’re killing yourself! You’re taking clean eating and exercise too far! You’re sick and you don’t even see it!” My response was always a big, “Screw you!” because he was threatening my entire existence.
My wise mind was completely gone to ED thoughts and no amount of logic from my husband was going to change that. When he gave up the logic talk and asked me questions, I finally began to shift my thinking.
Instead of, “You don’t need to run!” he began asking me, “Why do you feel like you need to run?” That put the ball in my court and opened dialogue instead of shaming my way of thinking that was completely logical in my disordered mind.
Allow the professionals to be the bad guys that bark logic… they have the knowledge and experience to do so.
3. Get professional help- for both of you
Get help from a professional– both for yourself and your loved one who is suffering.
Even though I was 32, my dad, mom, step-mom, and husband were all in classes, therapy, and researching the disease to help them understand what I was going through.
When they gave up the “I have to fix her” role and took on the position of my support team that held me accountable to the advice of my treatment team, the pressure was off them.
It also gave me a safe place to land instead of more people telling me what to do and how to change. Let the treatment team tackle the disease; you just learn how to be there to support and love unconditionally.
4. Be the guard dog
The world is not made for people in eating disorder recovery… societal pressures, diet culture, exercise obsessions, body perfection, and toxic talk are everywhere you turn.
A person who is trying to heal their body and mind from the destruction of and eating disorder is hyper-sensitive to all these factors. They need your help to fight these monsters!
…and a few more quick tips:
5. Eliminate number talk in your household.
Throw away the fit bits, black out the calories on the nutrition labels, GET RID OF THE SCALE! No number talk- AT ALL!
6. Ask questions about their feelings
Instead of accusing them of using behaviors, ask them with sincerity questions such as, “I can see you are in your head right now; want to talk?” or, “I’ve noticed you pulling away today; is there any way I can support you?”
7. Don’t label foods as good and bad!
Food does not have a moral code. There’s a purpose for all foods! They are all contributors to your mental, physical, psychological, and social health. Allow all foods to exist in harmony in your dialogue and actions.
8. Speak up for them when needed
If you are in a toxic situation, conversation, or event, HELP THEM GET OUT OF IT! A person with an eating disorder may not be able to stick up for themselves right away. Be cognitive of their triggers and be their guard dog when needed.
9. Stop body talk
ANY body talk is toxic. Being critical of their body or your body can be detrimental. Instead of complementing their body or criticizing it, praise their character, their strength, and their qualities that have nothing to do with their looks. Do it for yourself, too. you may see a difference in your own self-worth!
10. Be willing to let go
Let’s be honest: someone recovering from exercise addiction doesn’t need to complete the family 5K you signed up for. Someone who is trying to learn how to love themselves doesn’t need to be around critical Aunt ______ at the family reunion. A person learning to get rid of restrictive habits does not need to be schooled by the obsessive trainer on their “clean eating plan”. Some situations, people, and things that will need to be avoided for awhile, and that is okay.
11. Clean out “sick clothes” and allow for new clothing
Changing bodies are very hard to deal with in eating disorder recovery. I have had to get rid of not one but TWO closets full of clothes in my recovery. If you budget for new clothes, your loved one will not feel pressured to complete behaviors to “fix” their clothing issues. Trust me, this one is important!
You’re a warrior too
It is never easy to begin the journey to recovery- as a sufferer or as a loved one.
Find someone who has been there to help address your thoughts, feelings, fears and concerns. The journey is a tough one to begin, but the outcome is freedom for ALL parties involved.
Remember, as Ron Blue stated, “The longer term your perspective, the better your decisions will be.”
You can do this, Warriors… and loved ones, you are Warriors, too!