How You Can Help Your Child Overcome an Eating Disorder
Tauri Hall, 2003
"But my child has never had a weight problem. She has many friends and is athletic why is she worried about her weight? Besides, my daughter certainly doesn’t look ill and she has everything a young girl could possibly want or need. How is this possible? Maybe it is just a stage, her way of making a statement. What should I do?" ~ Kaye, parent of a 14-year-old girl with bulimia nervosaWe live in a society that teaches our children that they are not enough. They are constantly bombarded with messages that they aren’t thin enough, pretty enough, muscular enough or handsome enough. The music videos, video games, movies, television shows, commercials and magazines that target young consumers advertise that to be a desirable female is to be very thin, beautiful and young and to be a desirable male is to be muscular and handsome. Is it any wonder so many of our children strive for perfection, often resulting in lowered self-esteem because they are trying to attain the unattainable? Desperate to achieve what society deems they should be, many young women and men, girls and boys, develop eating disorders.
Societal messages are not the sole cause of eating disorders. Research has found that disordered eating is often the result of a number of biological, social, psychological and environmental factors. (Schmidt, 2002). Once a diagnosis is made revealing that your son or daughter has an eating disorder, you may begin to question how this could have happened. It is normal to feel overwhelmed, angry, frightened, embarrassed and possibly guilty. It is important to understand that no one event or comment produces an eating disorder. Focus on support, not blame.
Talking about the Eating Disorder
Talking about your child’s eating disorder may be extremely difficult for both you and your child; however, it is better to confront the issues and negative feelings. Don’t be afraid to express anger, confusion or frustration and encourage your child to do so as well. You may find it tempting to try and convince your child that his or her weight is fine; you will likely be more successful if you discuss the eating disorder directly. Researchers have developed the “IMAD” approach to guide people in talking to their loved ones about their illness (Levine and Hill 1991). Focus on the inefficiency, misery, alienation and disturbance that the illness is causing in your child’s life. Externalize the problem. For example do not let your child become one with the eating disorder, but present it as an entity outside of your child that is affecting the quality of his or her life. Do not make your child feel attacked or ashamed. Be very open and honest about the problem and talk about the impact of it in a very straightforward manner.
Inefficiency is a term you can use to describe how the eating disorder prevents your child from accomplishing things. Discuss the consequences that result from either a restricted diet or purging behaviours. What are the effects of physical weakness, sadness, anxiety, low energy and poor concentration? What is the impact of time spent on the eating disorder? How do all of these factors interfere with relationships with friends and family, school life, social activities and other personal goals?
Misery sums up the emotional consequences of an eating disorder. Talk to your child about feeling anger, depression, anxiety, guilt or other negative emotions. Ask how often these emotions are linked to the eating disorder.
Alienation may occur due to the persistent obsession with eating, weight, exercise and body image. Social isolation and feelings that no one else could possibly understand may cause an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Help your child to think about ways he or she has been cut off from other family members, friends and even from him- or herself.
Disturbance is a term you can use to talk about the behaviours your child is exhibiting that are upsetting to either to herself or others. For example: eating secretly, hoarding food, taking laxatives, repeatedly weighing themselves, vomiting. Moodiness, irritability and impulsive behaviours such as: lying, being promiscuous or stealing may also be connected to an eating disorder.
Talking about Body Image and Health
Discussing healthy ways to think about shape, weight and eating is one of the most helpful things you can do in parenting your children. Raise thought-provoking topics in order to help everyone become aware of their own thoughts and behaviours and the role that society plays in promoting beauty myths about thinness. Also, very important is working together to change the language your family uses to describe body types and eating.
Talking with Your Family
Family involvement is imperative because of the important role the family environment plays in your child’s recovery. Recovery is generally best facilitated when the family works together and not against one another.
Establish and maintain open communication and supportive relationships within the family. Research indicates that your relationship with your children influences the way they see themselves. Relationships which are supportive and affectionate let children know that they are loved and accepted. Children who feel loved and supported are likely to develop higher self-esteem which may consequently help them to feel good about themselves despite the messages they receive from the entertainment and fashion industries.
Remember that everyone in the family is affected by the eating disorder. Consider the needs of all family members.
Create clear and realistic expectations.
Always remember that you are setting an example for your children. Think about the messages you may be sending through your language, behaviour and reactions to emotional situations.
Hall, Lindsey, & Ostroff, Monika. Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery. Publishers Group West, 1999
Meadow, Rosalyn, & Weiss, Lillie, Women's Conflicts about Eating and Sexuality: The Relationship Between Food and Sex. Haworth Press, 1993
Normandi, Carol, & Roark, Lauralee. Over It: A Teen's Guide to Getting Beyond Obsessions with Food and Weight. New World Library, 2001
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Ballantine Books, 1995
Roth, Geneen. When Food is Love: Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy. Plume, 1992
Teachman, Bethany, Schwartz, Marlene, Gordic, Bonnie, & Coyle, Brenda. Helping Your Child Overcome an Eating Disorder: What You Can Do at Home. New Harbinger, 2003