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Learning To Ignore Unhelpful Comments

by Melanie Stevenson, F.E.A.S.T. Parent Volunteer

The shock we first feel when we hear the diagnosis ‘eating disorder’ throws most parents into a state of terror.

The first stage tends to be asking ourselves lots of questions: How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why my child? What did I do wrong?

As if this state were not bad enough to deal with, often before we have really taken on board what treating this illness entails, we may also be faced with not just unhelpful, but downright destructive comments from others, who may be well-meaning. I don’t think many parents or carers escape this extra layer of torture, so it helps to be aware from the start that this may happen.

How do we deal with unhelpful remarks? Firstly, I think we have to take the time to get our heads round the illness – and FEAST’s FIRST30Days service can help hugely on this level.

Because when we truly understand that this was not our child’s fault and not our fault, and when we become more confident in our knowledge, we can stay calm in the face of what is usually ignorance.

One of the most hurtful comments that was made in the early days of my daughter’s illness came from a friend. She had an Italian friend who was a paediatrician and said quite nonchalantly, “In Italy they say that anorexia nervosa represents a total rejection of the mother.” This comment at the time shook me to my core. It clearly did not make sense, but I did not have the knowledge to counter it. My husband had died a few years earlier and I was bringing up my daughter on my own; and in spite of the illness, we had a close and loving relationship. But it did put me in a tailspin–was this what it was about? What had I done to make her reject me? The lack of knowledge at the time was what caused the self-doubt. I have never even bothered to speak with my friend about this remark because this occasion is in the distant past. I love this friend, but there is still a slight resentment that she could even say this; she could have said nothing and it would have been kinder.

Even worse, what happens when we receive inappropriate comments from the so-called professionals, the people who we are trusting to look after our children and help them return to health? Sadly, there is still a lot of ignorance around among clinicians in the eating disorders world. Outdated views still hold. Of course there are some compassionate and brilliant clinicians out there and I do not wish to criticise the people who are doing great work. But a psychiatrist in the hospital where my daughter went for inpatient treatment told me, “This is all about the death of her father.” Again, I felt demoralised and also doubtful – given that my own father died when I was very young, I felt I was better placed than most to support my daughter through the death of her father and that I had actually done very well up to that point. Later when I found out through FEAST that there is a strong genetic element in the development of an eating disorder and also about the impact of weight loss in susceptible individuals, I felt reassured; but at the time, it was a hugely deflating comment which was very unhelpful.

There are other horror stories in terms of what the ‘professionals’ have said to parents that I have come across. One psychologist was waiting for the patient to drop to ‘rock bottom’ in the hope that the patient would start eating again. At a BMI of 11, that patient was more likely to die than eat. And it is hugely scary that a clinician can be so ignorant in a hospital setting because these comments are not only unhelpful, they are actively harmful. Another mother was told that her daughter was unlikely to recover if she didn’t recover by the age of 18; and in spite of what I say to try and reassure her that her daughter will recover, that comment shook her to the core and she has doubts.. Another FEAST parent was told to back off, that it was all psychological, and the clinician was going to build a relationship with the patient to find out what the ‘real cause’ was. The list is extensive, unfortunately.

I am not writing this post to advise on how you respond to unhelpful and harmful comments, but to say that, with knowledge and time, it becomes easier to find the strength to stand firm and confident in what we are doing and let those comments wash over us.

And to let those parents know who are just starting out on this journey that while negative and ignorant comments are to be expected, they do not need to knock us off course from the recovery journey.

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7 Comments

  1. Linda Greene

    You are spot on….thank you for writing about this topic. On top of all the stressors a parent of an eating disorder sufferer must face is the additional one of outdated or uniformed comments. Although it was very difficult to do at the time due to exhaustion I found it helpful to stay on top of evidence-based information and keeping bullet points about eating disorders handy. If I couldn’t sleep at night I would search for the latest information to arm myself. DBT skills helped me stay calm in the moments where outdated or down right cruel comments were stated. If I could refute just one false comment with “current, evidence-based information” it helped me move on to fight the only fight that mattered….battling ED. Knowledge is power.

  2. IFEDD

    Thank you for this. Anyone who has been the recipient of hurtful, harmful or dangerous comments or recommendations about their child’s eating disorder from a medical professional can anonymously report by sending an email to [email protected]. We will be approaching the AMA and AAP with our summary to support their need to improve their action alerts to doctors about eating disorders.

  3. Tara

    The thoughtless comments from others makes it so isolating as well, it has made me stop telling people what is going on. Recent comments that are still raw for me are “well if she ends up back hospital she will have no-one to blame but herself” (daughter is now back in hospital for the 7th time) “send her round to mine, I will feed her” and “stress can cause weight loss, maybe she is just a bit stressed”.

    I think people are just thoughtless and really don’t understand it is an illness but I just can’t be bothered to deal with these kind of comments anymore. It’s a very isolating illness, particularly for the sufferer but for the family too x

  4. Kathy

    I am very new to this. My daughter has been dx with AN. I thought she was just trying to keep a healthy life when this pandemic started and it seemed to spiral into this eating disorder. She was hospitalized for a week in Sept and then we admitted her into a inpatient treatment center for 2 weeks. I am looking for some help as a Mom with coping.

  5. julie

    Judy, You are so right that in time, one gets more confidence…but in lots of time…meanwhile the friends or professionals are “equally” as disarmed as we are and their hurtful words come out…very hard to take while moving forward…

  6. Monica

    I am new to this ED journey as a parent of a young adolescent with with AN. Now month 3 of outpt virtual (rather disjointed) treatment and on a wait list for formal ED treatment.
    I am so thankful FEAST is available as a parent focused, evidenced based source of support and information.
    I will say I have been shocked at the lack of awareness in the medical community. Visit to primary care (albeit without any medical visits in 2 yrs as no illness) with a bmi of 14, asking to have her BP checked “we don’t usually do this” and off hand comment from office RPN, “well she’s tiny so a bmi of 14 is okay”
    then Pediatrician referral – grateful for a specialist on board as she was medically unstable (less so now)
    but the comment”the good thing about having Anorexia is that you’ll always be skinny” I almost fell off my chair – I think he was referencing the Obesity challenges in some youth – but totally out of context.

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