Words of Wisdom for Parents with Adolescents in Treatment for An Eating Disorder

“How do I do this?”

This is one of the most frequently asked questions at the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). Parents realize the severity of eating disorders, they’ve researched effective treatments and now they want to know what they can say or do to help their adolescent.

Unfortunately, there is not one answer to this question, but I thought I’d share three helpful strategies parents in the program have successfully used during their child’s journey toward recovery.

Put on your armor each morning. I often tell parents to expect their adolescent’s behavior to get worse before it gets better.  One mother, of a 16-year-old, described her daily experience with re-feeding her daughter as a “battle” that she needed to prepare for ahead of time.  Her daughter would say hurtful things, scream and cry, but her mother remained insulated and protected by her imaginary armor.

Pick your battles and focus your energy on priorities. Many families call Walden or come to their adolescent’s evaluation and say, “My child doesn’t want to miss any school for treatment,” or “The only thing he looks forward to is playing video games.”  Our program encourages parents to express their concerns, frustrations and sadness when they are not allowing their adolescent to participate in an activity that makes them feel good.  But, we remind them that eating disorders have the highest fatality rate among all mental illnesses and that it’s okay if their adolescent is incredibly angry; they are alive and receiving the treatment they need.

Be a broken recordDuring calm moments, we recommend that parents repeatedly let their child know what their expectations are around eating and answer any questions they may have. A father, of a 14-year-old female, came up with a few responses that he would say when his daughter was attempting to negotiate her meal plan, increase exercise or engage in other eating disorder related behavior.  His responses included, “This is not up for negotiation,” “You’re right, this isn’t fair,” and “That is not a conversation we can have right now; I’m willing to discuss it after you finish dinner/snack.”  Another father’s mantra was, “Be patient, be persistent and be consistent.”

Throughout the program and after, you will adopt helpful strategies from other parents and come up with your own to share, but I hope, at the very least, these strategies have got you thinking about how you can set the stage for your child’s eating disorder recovery.

If you’re a parent with a child who has or  is currently receiving treatment for an eating disorder, I would love to hear about recovery strategies that  worked or are working for you.

About the author: Joanna Imse, LICSW is the Assistant Program Director of the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program in Braintree, MA.  In 2007, after obtaining her masters degree, she began practicing in the field of social work. Joanna has been trained in structural family therapy, Dialetical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Family-Based Treatment for eating disorders.