What I Wish I Knew as a Parent of a Child with an Eating Disorder

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For Eating Disorders Awareness Week this year I wanted to gather some experiences of parents.

A lot of parents reach out to me asking for advice and support and whilst I try my best, I can never truly know how it feels to have a child with an eating disorder. So I thought it might be helpful to collate some things parents want others to know about caring for a young person with an eating disorder, and these are some of the responses I had.

  • Having an eating disorder is nobody’s fault, not the carer/parent or the sufferer.
  • You have to separate the evil that is eating disorder from your child.
  • You cannot bargain with an eating disorder, stay consistent and strong, even if it takes hours to get a glass of milk drunk.
  • In the early stage of our AN journey, I spent literally hours talking about my daughter’s feelings around food/shape/exercise with her and listening to her terror and anxiety. I thought that was good parenting – always being available to listen and trying to help but actually this was making things far worse.  I was giving the AN airtime which helped it stay so close to us all.  Once we agreed we would only discuss anything to do with it at set times and with both parents present it cut down the heaviness of it in the room. 
  • Distraction at meal times is your best friend- play games, watch tv, chat etc.
  • As a parent/carer, you’ll need support too, there are wonderful support groups online you can lean on. Reach out to other parents. Find solidarity with others in a similar boat.
  • It’s easy to feel like you’ve let your child down, but guilt won’t help them or you.
  • Be creative about what you can do together as a family.
  • One of the best things I read (although at the time I wanted to just give up) was that most parents who have been through parenting an AN child say it is the single hardest thing they have ever had to live though.  This was terrifying at first glance but when times got really, really bad in our house I found comfort knowing that this is probably as bad as things are ever going to get in my role as a parent.
  • Give your child the space and help them to feel safe to tell you things that might make you uncomfortable, like things you do or say that are not helpful.
  • Don’t badger them while they are eating, but give them space afterwards to talk about it.
  • Patience is key!
  • Every meal has to be finished to the point of scraping the plate.  This is so important. Otherwise the AN allows the child to leave some ketchup, then a few peas, then half a potato and each time these are big wins for the AN.  The child doesn’t want to leave all these little things but as they start doing it and if the parent does not pick up on it then boundaries are suddenly flexible for the child on every meal.  This then takes up their headspace and allows the AN to grow.  Once a child realises that there is no option but to eat everything, their anxiety starts to subside as there is no choice – this firm boundary is really comforting.  
  • Teaching your child that anorexia and normal teen life can’t co-exist is important. That’s not a threat it’s a fact.
  • My therapist told me that teens are big kids not mini adults. This helps me to stay calm with her and not get cross when she’s so up and down.
  • It’ll get better. The stats are awful, but your kid has you, you’re reading this, you’re learning about this, you’ve got them. Some days it’s just about keeping them alive, if you keep them alive every day they will grow up and that might help. Some days it about “they’ve eaten, today’s a good day” and some days it’s about bigger strides.
  • Read as much about eating disorders from trusted sources as you can.
  • It’s a long road and it’s hard for you, but even harder for your child.
  • Scary solutions such as more intensive care can also be the best solutions.
  • They are not ‘all about control’ or caused by social media. Eating disorders are complex with many causes including genetic determinants.
  • Show radical compassion to yourself.
  • Forget everything you thought you knew about food and eating. There is no such thing as ‘healthy food’.
  • Not everything that comes out of your child’s mouth is them, much of it will be their eating disorder speaking.
  • Malnourished people can’t process counselling or therapy properly, be patient with your child.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect recovery and everyone recovers at a different pace.
  • Parents are not to blame for a child getting an eating disorder. There may have been things you will look back on and think “why didn’t we notice that, or why didn’t we stop her doing that etc” but it really is not worth beating yourself up over.
  • Be firm but loving and you need to remain being a parent as well as a concerned carer. 

Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to this post. Parents, is there anything you would add to this list?

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