It was one of the biggest misconceptions in the field and we know now that families do not cause eating disorders. The role of the family in eating disorder recovery is crucial. Early in my career models of eating disorders treatment viewed families and dysfunctional family relationships as a contributing cause of these illnesses. In clinical practice, this leads to over allying with the teen and underutilizing and educating parents and overall poorer outcomes.
The treatment community and best practices have moved away from the blaming of families toward an understanding that families aren’t a cause, but instead are critical to eating disorders recovery. We know for anorexia treatment outcomes are better when allying with the family rather than the teen.
"As a field, we have learned that whole families are affected by eating disorders. Parents, as well as the patient, deserve support."
As a field, we have learned that whole families are affected by eating disorders. Parents, as well as the patient, deserve support. There are strategies that can be implemented at any stage of treatment or recovery to support an individual in recovery.
PSA: It’s Totally NOT Your Fault
I repeat, your child’s eating disorder is not your fault. Even at the risk of redundancy, you aren’t responsible for the development of this complex, devastating disorder in your loved one. Now that we’ve shaken off the shame, let’s make a resolution to be part of the solution, part of the recovery. Commit to doing everything in your power to support your loved one’s recovery process.
Take Care of Yourself Too
Your loved one’s recovery depends on it. We see caretakers run themselves ragged. I have so much empathy for parents with children struggling with eating disorders. These parents are fierce like mamma bears. Fierce and ferocious because they are literally fighting for their child’s life. Fighting for the right treatment, with insurance to cover necessary treatment, with the treatment team to bring cohesiveness. Often that’s a sign of good parenting, not disorder. We have to remember that parents coming to us are fighting for their child’s life. They are not in their natural state. This fierceness is an appropriate emotional response. It’s a sign of care, of love, and of health. Imagine the opposite, complete nonchalance. Which is more appropriate in this circumstance.
Listen. Learn from the experience of your loved one. Eating disorders are difficult to understand complex creatures. Families often struggle to communicate when they need it most. Remember that a good listener doesn’t have all of the answers. They create a supportive environment that encourages honesty and open communication.
Truth bomb (with a dose of love) time! Secrets and things left unsaid rarely support a meaningful eating disorder recovery. While these conversations can be uncomfortable at times and the reaction from your loved one can be difficult. Don’t shy away from expressing yourself and your concerns about your loved one’s health.
Participate and Educate
The old clique, knowledge is power is especially true for eating disorder recovery. Willingness to participate in your loved one’s eating disorders recovery and treatment plan is the largest act of love and crucial to the recovery process. This time can feel isolating and confusing for parents and loved ones, as well as the individual struggling with an eating disorder. Resources are available to help you learn about eating disorders and how to best to support your loved one. A great starting place is NEDA’s Parent Toolkit.
No one does recovery alone, it truly takes a village. There is nothing more heart wrenching for a parent than to watch their child suffer from illness. Particularly one that hijacks their personality, life, and vitality. If I could say one thing to all the loved ones of individuals with eating issues I would tell them: I know it's hard honey. Hang in their, recovery is possible. Your support is more meaninful to your loved one's successful recovery than you can ever imagine.