When a parent is faced with a child with an eating disorder, it’s an upsetting time. It doesn’t matter if their child is a teenager or a young adult, the world of eating disorders can seem foreign and unfamiliar.
An eating disorder impacts all facets of an individual’s life and is medically complex. As a medically complex person myself (thank you rare diseases!), I enjoy the challenge and honor of working with people that other mental health professionals might refrain from working with.
My first introduction to the world of eating disorders was when I was a doctoral student at an academic health center. As I was not yet an eating disorder specialist, I only saw this patient for a few sessions as she waited for her first appointment at a local eating disorder clinic. . I remember coming home from our sessions together and delving into the literature on eating disorders. The most striking difference between this disorder and other mental health disorders is that eating disorders are the most deadly. This alone motivated me to specialize in this field.
But, after more than 13 years of working with young people with eating disorders, I have noticed that parents often carry stigma, prejudice and misconceptions, conscious and unconscious, due to our traditional food culture. often fat-phobic. This can have a devastating impact on the relationship with their child and on the recovery process. After observing and working through many of these challenges, these are the learnings that I think parents could benefit from the most.
Young people don’t choose to have an eating disorder
One all-too-common misconception I’ve seen is that people choose to have an eating disorder, and having willpower will just allow the person to “get over it”. Parents find themselves frustrated with their child, not understanding why their child can’t “just eat normally” or “stop purging”. The fact is, you can’t just stop eating disorder behaviors because a parent, out of love and fear, tells them to. Eating disorders alter brain function and are entirely complex conditions.
I remember a former patient whose father did not understand his eating disorder behaviors. The father was getting frustrated and directing this to his son. Unfortunately, in this case, the father didn’t want to understand more about eating disorders and he didn’t want to learn how to better support his son. This had a negative impact on their relationship. My goal with this particular patient was to find out how he would recover, even without his father’s support or understanding. We spent many sessions dealing with all of this. I really feel like a lack of parental support makes recovery much more difficult and the therapy process often takes much longer. This patient persevered and is now fully recovered from his eating disorder and is extremely successful in everything he does.
Eating Disorders Are Not Shameful
Another thought of many parents is that the eating disorder is very embarrassing and shameful for the family. Many people I have worked with who have eating disorders have some degree of shame. However, there is nothing shameful about having a mental health disorder. Parents may feel guilty, thinking they should have prevented the eating disorder or contributed to it. But what parents need to remember is that no one wants an eating disorder to happen, and keeping the eating disorder hidden and protected will only allow it to flourish.
There is no “best time” to seek treatment
It’s not uncommon for parents to say they want to delay eating disorder treatment for their child “until it gets worse.” I specifically see this happen when a parent calls the practice, finds out about the time and financial commitment involved in treating an eating disorder, and then says they don’t think the eating disorder is ” so serious” and that he can wait. Maybe a family trip is coming up or their child is graduating from high school, but many parents don’t realize that any eating disorder can kill, no matter how long a person has had the disorder and little regardless of height, weight, age. , or sex.
What’s devastating is that if the eating disorder is to the point where parents recognize it, it’s probably a lot worse than they think. Many parents, at the start of treatment, are surprised to learn how much the eating disorder affects their child. Eating disorders are serious conditions that require medical and psychological treatment, like any complex illness. It is not wise to wait.
Diet culture is not healthy, or the answer
Normalizing food culture is by far the most toxic misconception of all. Dieting may seem safe because friends, family, celebrities, athletes and famous doctors talk about it. However, research shows time and time again that diets don’t work and can in fact be very dangerous. Diets are by nature restrictive, depriving and do not meet nutritional needs. Yet many parents cling to the idea that because they’re dieting, it’s okay for their child to diet. They believe that a restrictive diet is the solution for their child to achieve what they perceive to be a healthy weight. I think back to several instances where parents were sure weight loss was the answer. But, if a person does not explore what is behind eating disorder behaviors, no amount of weight loss will ever be enough. It becomes this perpetual cycle of body fixation intertwined with self-esteem. I educate parents and their child about health at all sizes. Dieting is never the answer and only encourages the problem.
What I want parents to know is that they can arm themselves with knowledge and address their misconceptions. There are so many resources on eating disorders that it can easily become overwhelming. It may be best to start by checking the websites of nonprofit eating disorder organizations, such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).
From there, parents can get an idea of credible resources, the best way to obtain knowledge that matters to them, and the best course of treatment for their child. Most importantly, I’d like parents to know that they don’t have to deal with eating disorder treatment alone.
Dr. Melissa Geraghty, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical health psychologist and creator of “The Ultimate Eating Disorders Bootcamp for Parents”. She is an international workshop presenter, board member and has been recognized for her advocacy efforts. You can follow her on Twitter @MindfulDrG or Instagram @DrMelissaGeraghty
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.