Eating disorders can take a major toll not only on your child living with it but on the entire family system as well. Balancing treatment goals with maintaining structure, health and happiness in the home can be really difficult. While the treatment process can feel really daunting, I promise it will be worth it when you start noticing your child coming back to themselves with proper nourishment and continued practice of therapeutic interventions.
In order to make this process feel a little bit more manageable, here are some tips to help keep your family safe, happy and intact during eating disorder treatment.
1) Get Rid of Shame and Blame
Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can strike any family for a number of reasons – in my therapeutic experience, I’ve worked with dozens of parents who all want the answer to the same question, “Where did we go wrong?” I can honestly say that my answer is most often, “You didn’t!” We know that eating disorders arise from a complex blend of genetic, psychological and environmental factors that all come together to create the storm that is an eating disorder. With this in mind, do your best to set aside the self-blame and the shame – it’s only going to get in your way when it comes to helping support your child through treatment.
2) Focus on Treatment First
As hard as eating disorder treatment can be on the family, it is a necessary medical intervention that will help to ensure that your family continues to be strong and healthy in the future. Whether it is a summer camp that you’ve already paid for or a soccer game that your child “can’t miss” there will be a something that can interfere with treatment at some point during your child’s recovery journey. I often equate eating disorder treatment with chemotherapy. If your child had cancer, of course you would prioritize chemotherapy treatments over other commitments. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness affecting more than 10 million Americans. Eating disorder treatment saves lives. I encourage family members to please remember to prioritize health first – be it physical health or mental health.
3) Do Your Best to Incorporate Normalcy (and Even Fun!)
Just because your family is engaged in eating disorder treatment doesn’t mean you have to cancel all your plans, lock down the house and never have any fun! While going out to dinner or getting ice cream may be a fun and bonding event for many families, for individuals with eating disorders, these scenarios can create enough stress to negate the point of getting out of the house in the first place. My recommendation is to schedule your meals outside of and around the times you are planning an outing or fun activity. If you’re going to the movies and your child opts not to order popcorn or candy, that’s okay. Do your best to focus on the activity itself and enjoy the time with your child.
4) Make Time for Conversations Outside of the Eating Disorder
When children and adolescents are in treatment it can start to feel like everything in their life is centered around the eating disorder. Take time outside of meals to talk with your child about things not related to food and the eating disorder. Ask them about the things you know they love or used to enjoy before the eating disorder came into their lives. Be it video games, Netflix shows, youtube personalities, or activities like reading, writing, or art take an active interest in your child’s world!
There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about keeping your family strong during ED treatment, but if you follow these tips for a start you should be well on your way to having the best possible experience as a family during your child’s recovery journey. As always, if you need further assistance in helping your child through their recovery journey, we are here for you.
George White is a licensed therapist and an adolescent clinician at Walden Behavioral Care. George has worked as a family therapist and has extensive experience treating eating disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other mental health conditions. He currently works in the Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs in Waltham, MA.