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Day 12: What To Expect When your Child Has An Eating Disorder

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Earlier this month, we released an upgraded version of our FEAST 30 Days Program featuring more resources and expanded topics. Below is an excerpt from Day 12, which is titled “What To Expect When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder.” To access the whole program, you can register here. It’s free of charge!

Caring for someone with an eating disorder is challenging. While everyone’s journey is different, there is some common ground for many families regarding what to expect.

  1. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Gear up for what may be a long haul, and know that this is the norm rather than the exception. Realistic expectations can help offset frustration. There is no set timeline for recovery, you just have to stay the course and do the work.
  1. There will be resistance. As you learned earlier, it’s common for a person with an eating disorder not to want to give up their illness, because they feel like it benefits them. They will resist treatment and any efforts on your part to lead them to recovery, especially at first. They will likely have no insight into their eating disorder and may not even believe that they are sick.
  1. Recovery is not linear. As a result, there are lots of ups and downs and bumps in the road. Find a way to get back on track when your person veers off-road and view these blips as pitfalls that you can avoid in the future. Despite any regression, you will never be back to square one. With each passing day of this journey you become wiser and you learn what works and what doesn’t as you move forward.
  1. You will need to use your intuition and your insight into your child as you knew them before the eating disorder to guide you. Trust that intuition, and use it to be an empowered advocate for your child when needed.
  1. Expect that you may need to advocate for your child. If you are not seeing progress, if your child’s behaviors are not improving with weight restoration, if you feel that your child needs a different level of care, or if you feel that your child requires diagnostic testing or immediate medical attention, you will need to be your child’s advocate. Use your instincts.
  1. Parents should be involved in treatment. If this is not the standard with your person’s providers, discuss ways to make this happen.
  1. Prioritize your person’s recovery. This means that you may need to take time off from work, get help caring for siblings and other family members, and extricate yourself from all non-essential responsibilities for a while.
  1. Things usually get worse before they get better. Challenging your person’s eating disorder can get ugly. If their eating disorder is feeling threatened, and saying or doing hateful things, try to focus on the fact that what you are doing is working–and keep doing it.
  1. Expect deceit. An eating disorder can make people behave in ways that parents would not expect. For example, your person may lie to your face about eating disorder behaviors when they are always honest about everything else. If that happens, react with compassion. They are already ashamed of their behavior.
  1. You need to set a lot of very clear boundaries. For each family, these boundaries are different. Once you set them, you have to make sure that they are maintained. If they aren’t, you have to take action; otherwise they are not going to be effective.
  1. Your child may not like their treatment team and may complain about them. Be careful how you respond. Many times, it’s the eating disorder talking, and validating these complaints gives it more power.
  1. Expect to see behaviors that your child would normally not exhibit. They may be verbally or even physically abusive. They may try to run away. The eating disorder often invokes a fight or flight response, especially during mealtime. They may blame you, and even accuse you of abuse. They may go through a period of engaging in self-harm as a way of coping.
  1. Most others outside of the immediate family will not understand what you are going through. Many people will have outdated knowledge, if any, about eating disorders; contact with them may inhibit your person’s recovery and cause you unneeded stress. You may choose to try and educate some of these people or save the energy to fight the eating disorder.
  1. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, your love and support is reaching your person. Their eating disorder often won’t allow them to acknowledge it, and that makes this journey so much more difficult for parents. It’s exhausting fighting for your child when you are fighting against them. Sometimes you feel like your child is gone; you can’t see them anymore. But they are still there, and your love and support is their lifeline.

When you know what to expect, you can be better prepared to face your child’s eating disorder and to support their recovery.

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5 Comments

  1. Susan

    Thank you for this. When our daughter died in 2014, family involvement was less than…
    One GOOD therapist asked me why I kept trying to be so involved in her adult treatment. My answer was: ‘because I love her so much’.
    Enough said.

  2. Carmen

    Thank you for this post. I needed a reminder of all these points, especially the words on prioritizing personal recovery. I find myself putting off self care and my other kiddos needs with the thought that I’ll get to it once we’ve beat the ED.

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