By Sarah, F.E.A.S.T. Volunteer
We love our children very much. On this, Iʼm sure we can all agree. Beyond this, there is a huge umbrella of beliefs and ideas as to how best to raise our children. Add to this a mental health issue that leaves many medical professionals scratching their heads and you are often left with parents who are scared, confused, overwhelmed and underprepared on how to help the most important person in their world. We often hear about partners who are not on board. Partners who have very different ideas about how best to help someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, and it can sometimes feel like an impossible situation to resolve. So how do we work through this?
Letʼs perhaps begin at the end. Letʼs look at the things we donʼt want for our children. We donʼt want them to exclude certain foods from their life that they previously enjoyed. We donʼt want them to worry constantly about their weight. We donʼt want them to be isolated and alone because social situations cause them too much stress. I think this is a good place to start and discuss with partners or exes. A place where I think we can again mostly agree with each other.
The next stage can be more difficult. How do we achieve these things? What do we do when we have very different ideas of how to achieve these goals? I would perhaps begin with looking at why you disagree. Did your partner/ex grow up in an unsupportive family, where you were expected to ʻsuck it up and get on with itʼ? Would they benefit from exploring their past experience and considering that times have changed; that we no longer have to suffer in silence? Can you show empathy that you understand that their childhood was that way and that you want something more for your own child? Is it possible to learn from the mistakes of generations gone by?
Is your partner/ex in denial? Do they believe that this is a phase or not as serious as we believe? Maybe they have not reached the same place that we have in processing the situation. Maybe they havenʼt reached the same place of understanding the illness that we have. Some people need to learn the why before they learn the how. As we research how to treat with books by Eva Musby or Lauren Muhlheim, their energy might be better placed with books like Decoding Anorexia by Carrie Arnold. Learning the science behind this illness can help some people reassess their viewpoint.
Is there a power struggle in the relationship of the caregivers? Much like our children donʼt like being told what to do, sometimes our partners/exʼs donʼt take instructions well from us. They may need to be guided by suggestions of reading material or forums like ʻAround the Dinner Tableʼ. They may need to reach out to others who have lived the same experiences. They may need to spend some time with the therapist either alone or with the sufferer and allow the therapist to be a kind of mediator that helps guide them. This method worked well for us between teenager and therapist. My daughter would argue with me over something and my response, some of the time, would be ʻask your therapistʼ. It removed the teenage power struggle and she was more prepared to listen to an outside voice. Maybe when a partner or ex has an approach that you donʼt agree with, keeping our opinion to ourselves and suggesting to discuss it with the treatment team might be met with less resistance.
When coaching a sufferer through a meal we are often advised to tell them, repeatedly, “It’s okay. I know what Iʼm doing. Iʼve got this. Itʼs going to be okay.” I see no reason that the same approach canʼt work on someone who is not on board with our plan. To ask them, with love and compassion, to please trust you. That you have researched and listened to the stories of others who have lived through this. That you know how to help. That you need them to put their faith in you and support you even when it doesnʼt feel right to them. This may be something that will need to be repeated much like the meal coaching; and just like the meal coaching, we do so with love and compassion.
Feeling overwhelmed or afraid can invoke strange reactions in some people. It can help to give that person back the power by helping them work to their strengths. My role in helping my daughter through her eating disorder journey was very firmly placed in meal preparation, supervision and meal coaching. She often would not let her father be part of this process. So this was my strength. My husband’s strength was to scoop up his tired, exhausted wife and to tell her he loved her. To tell her that if there was anything she needed, he was there. To remind her she was doing an amazing job and remind her of how far our daughter had come when it felt like she couldnʼt go on. That was his strength. Together it worked, but we each played a very different role. What is your strength? What are your partner/exʼs strengths? Maybe they are the one that helps distract your child after a difficult meal. Maybe they are the one who can talk more calmly to our loved one when our patience has failed us.
This process is a roller coaster ride. We can become so focused on helping our loved one through this journey that we forget to look sideways at those around us that are perhaps not keeping up. We can be so passionate and have such strong beliefs about what the recovery process should look like, or what the perfect treatment plan should look like; but unfortunately, we donʼt live in a perfect world, and when we are dealing with a beast of an illness that is made that much more challenging because of the other people in our childʼs life, we perhaps need to learn to bend so that we donʼt break. We need to accept that everything may not be the way that we want it to be but to never stop trying to find a solution. That solution will only come if we continually look for ways to speak so that we can be heard, to maybe accept that our treatment plan may be hindered by others, but it does not mean that we canʼt make it work and that we can’t continue to push forwards.
Thank you for this excellent article. I hope everyone who loves someone with an eating disorder reads it. I love the common sense and clarity of thought. Thank you. This article is a gift.
Thank you for this article! It encourages us to reflect on our approach and to try different, gentler ones.
Thank you for this, it can be a real struggle to also argue with others in the household on what the child needs, on top of the child and on top of our own fears and doubts. Finding a way to be heard and understood are great takeaways!
What a great essay and perspective. Thank you.
I wish I had this article years ago. I was so alone in the entire journey with my daughter. My husband didn’t ask what I needed, support me during tough days weeks, months and even now, 8 years later I’m still the one.
Support is essential. If it’s not happening, reach out. It’s just too hard to take on by yourself. Trust me on this.
Thank you Sarah. We got to the point where one of us was on board desperately paddling and shouting at the one on shore to get on and paddle, which the other was sobbing on the shore crying “don’t you realise you’re on a dangerous rust bucket and are going to drown. Get the coastguard to DO something. It is important for families to work together but in order for this to happen the resources need to be there for them to use
Thanks for the sharing this excellent article. The “ask the therapist” is a great strategy for diffusing power struggles as well as getting direction from the treatment team. You’re right about the differences in caregiver approaches. We both have the same intent and goal of helping our daughter just different perspectives. The take away for me is shift my approached from “firm and caring” to “compassionate and caring.” The article sums it up nicely:
To ask them, with love and compassion, to please trust you. That you have researched and listened to the stories of others who have lived through this
Thanks again for the great insight.
This is a brilliant, insightful, and beautifully written article. The ‘caregiver split’ in eating disorder treatment is both very real and very common. The nuanced difference between understanding ‘why’ and ‘how’ here is so well done in this piece and that distinction is not something I can remember seeing elsewhere. It is the kind of reflection that is helpful no matter where one is on this unexpected journey. Many, many thanks.
Thank you for your article. During this process I have felt so alone as a mother. My ex (her dad) agrees she has lost weight but denies its as serious as it is. His last comment to me was “there are alot of skinny people in this world that are doing just fine, I don’t see what the problem is?” Or his famous line “She eats with me”. Yes she does eat with him but not what she needs. I have offered many times for him to be a part of her appointments but he refuses. I am completely alone in this. It has been such a struggle. We have been working for the past year on her mental health. We found that by strengthing that it has helped her pick up more foods. However her weight has not changed. Honestly I thought it had improved but clinic says no. This is so hard. I am glad I read your article because I seriously felt like I was the only singe parent living this. It has been a long journey with a few more miles to go. I pray each day for recovery.