By Judy Krasna, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director
Being a new parent is hard. It takes a while for every parent to find their footing, to feel confident in their parenting abilities, to feel comfortable being responsible for the care of another totally dependent human being, and to feel capable of competently raising a child. After a while, most of us find our groove. Sure, there are challenges along the way, but we become wiser as our children get older, and this wisdom makes us more adept as parents.
There is a certain amount of normal adaptation required by parents when their child hits adolescence. There are shifts in dynamics. There are hormones. There may be some conflict as boundaries are tested and independence is demanded. We were all teens once, so we have a frame of reference that can guide us. Many of our friends are facing the same challenges with their children. There are books and internet articles that we can read about parenting an adolescent which will give us a pretty good idea of “dos” and “don’ts.”
The same cannot be said for when our child develops an eating disorder. There is nothing “normal” about the adaptations that we have to make, and about the challenges that we face. There is precious little reliable information out there, and what we do find is often conflicting.
When my daughter developed an eating disorder, I felt like a new parent all over again, but it was even more frustrating because I felt like I should know what to do. After all, I had been parenting this child for 14 years. I knew her. But suddenly, she felt like a stranger. I had no idea how to talk to my own daughter. That alone shattered my confidence as a mother.
Communicating with a loved one who has an eating disorder is complicated. You say one thing and they hear another. You think that you are calming and reassuring them, but your words have the opposite effect. You want to offer praise and encouragement, but instead you are reinforcing the abuse of the eating disorder. You want to pull your person closer, but you find that you are pushing them away. It’s an awful thing for a parent to experience; all you want to do is to make things better for your child, and at the end of the day it seems like you are making things worse.
I learned some things along the way that helped me to communicate with my daughter. One of the most important lessons was not to engage in a conversation when emotions were high. The only time to talk about something important is when all parties in the conversation are calm. Otherwise, communication won’t be productive.
I tried to frame things as “I statements” though I admit that it wasn’t very natural for me. When I wanted to address my daughter’s behaviors that I found concerning, I tried to focus the conversation on how those behaviors made me feel. For example, instead of demanding that she come home for the weekend when I felt like she was avoiding us (because she was losing weight), which would have raised her defenses, I would say, “It makes me uncomfortable that I haven’t seen you in a few weeks, it would make me feel a lot better if you came home for the weekend.” Did it always work? No, it didn’t. But it did allow for improved communication between us.
I did a lot of walking on eggshells for a while. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing to my daughter. I didn’t want to set the eating disorder monster off. I had a hard time finding the balance between saying what needed to be said and preserving our relationship.
My daughter had a hard time verbalizing what type of communication would help her (and what type wouldn’t) but I would suggest asking your loved one for their input on this. You may be surprised at what they do/don’t want to hear.
In general, I tried to keep communication flowing, even when it seemed pretty one-sided. I would try to engage my daughter in conversation about things in her life, and her short responses didn’t deter me from trying again (and again and again).
It took me a long time to find the language that felt right to me when communicating with my daughter, and I think for everyone that language is different. First, I had to accept that the daughter who I used to talk with freely about pretty much everything wasn’t present at that moment, and that I had to change the way that I spoke with her if I wanted to have any chance at real communication. It was hard for me to adapt my parenting style, and ultimately my personality, to suit this type of communication.
What I found is that I could never go wrong with love and reassurance, especially when I didn’t know what to say, or when there was nothing to say. I told my daughter that I loved her, that I would never stop caring about her, that I would never leave her, that I believed in her, and that I held hope in her future. Sometimes these messages were as much for her benefit as they were for mine.
It’s hard trying to communicate with someone who seems so emotionally distant and shut down, especially when you previously experienced a close and loving relationship. Never stop communicating, and never give up on that relationship. It’s just hibernating, it’s not gone.
There is tremendous power in communication, and there is a learning curve involved in figuring out how to communicate effectively in every relationship; even more so when an eating disorder insinuates itself into a parent/child relationship. Just like when you were a new parent, you sometimes need to rely on trial and error to figure it out. Keep trying, you’ll get there.