Life has many ups and downs and certainly has the ability to be challenging for everyone. No matter how far along someone is in their recovery, stressful situations can often trigger disordered thoughts and behaviors.
For parents supporting a child recovering from an eating disorder, especially those who have seen improvements in their child’s condition, these difficult days can elicit extreme worry and even frustration. Eating disorders impact the entire family system and the recovery process can often feel like an uphill battle.
While your concerns and feelings are certainly valid, it is also important to remember that your child’s eating disorder is not going to go away overnight, and they will need more of your support during these difficult times. Throughout the recovery process, remember that lapses are expected to occur and there is no such thing as a perfect recovery.
Here are a few tips to support your child through the obstacles in their recovery:
1.) Know and Understand Your Child’s Triggers
Many triggers come up when individuals experience uncomfortable emotions such as stress, sadness and shame/guilt. Think about what caused your child to feel any of these emotions in the past. Do they get particularly stressed during finals? Do they have strong reactions to interpersonal conflict? What if soccer practice gets canceled or they can’t work out? It’s important to be aware of these responses in your child so that you can plan ahead and help your child to stock their recovery toolbox with adaptive skills that can help them to more safely cope with their feelings in the moment. If you are unsure of their specific triggers, have an open discussion with your child and their other supports! The more prepared you can be, the more equipped you will be to navigate any obstacles that will arise in the future.
2.) Adjust Supervision and Monitoring as Appropriate
For anyone who has engaged in the Family-Based Treatment approach, remember that recovery can be like a dial on a radio. You can turn the dial up or down depending on stability, motivation and/or environmental influences. Now that you have a better idea as to what triggers your child’s eating disorder, you will be better able to prepare both your child and yourself to tackle any obstacle as it comes, or even prevent any lapses by identifying the trigger and putting parameters in place to minimize or negate any risk of using old behaviors. For instance, if you are aware that your child gets stressed during finals, maybe you add in distraction skills at the table (games, conversation) and get more involved with meal prepping and coaching in the time leading up to, and during finals. It is important to remember that this isn’t something you’ll do forever. This is to navigate any obstacles that come up, then, as the stressors or disordered behaviors decrease, families may be able to start ‘dialing down’ again.
3.) Get Support for Yourself
Being a support for a sick child of any kind can be scary, exhausting and at times, anxiety-provoking. For parents and caretakers of a child with an eating disorder, the road can be long and you may feel as though you are running on empty. Many families fear relapse. Many walk on eggshells so as not to “mishandle” a situation involving food or exercise. Remember that these emotions are normal AND important to experience. Allowing ourselves to feel and process emotions — especially with a professional/specialist — is a crucial part of being the best support we can to our children. If we don’t take care of ourselves appropriately, how can we possibly be an effective support for our loved ones? As you go through the emotional rollercoaster ride that is eating disorder treatment and recovery, know that naming and validating your emotions are critical to your child’s journey to recovery. You can’t drink from an empty cup, so remember to take care of yourself too.
It is easy to feel isolated as a parent with a loved one challenged by an eating disorder and supporting obstacles that will certainly occur can feel daunting. Remember you are not alone and you are doing the best that you can.
If you have concerns or need extra support in navigating obstacles, let us help.
Pipitone, MAAT, LPC is currently the Assistant Program Director at Walden Behavioral Care’s Guilford, CT clinic. Previous to this role, Niole was the Clinical Supervisor for Adolescent Programs for the Connecticut Region at Walden in South Windsor, CT. Nicole received her master’s degree in art therapy and clinical counseling from Albertus Magnus College. In 2012, Nicole found an interest in working with the eating disorder population and began working at Walden in 2013. During this time, Nicole has supported the growth of the adolescent programs for both parents and adolescents through facilitating support groups, psycho-education groups, dialectical behavioral therapy groups, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, and implementing the Family-Based Treatment model.