Let’s Get Real About Parenting a Child with an Eating Disorder
Before my son was diagnosed with an eating disorder, my understanding of eating disorders was an all too-common misconception: eating disorders were a female mental illness.
Getting Real as a parent of a son with anorexia nervosa began with my accepting that eating disorders were real for males, too.
My Get Real Journey as a parent of a child with an eating disorder is now in its fifth year. Multiple relapses, treatment stays, and recovery chapters continue to hone my parenting skills. Building my knowledge on eating disorders, Family Based Treatment, stigmas, shame, limit setting, and many other topics did not come without multiple stumbles in care decisions for my son.
Reflecting back on the first year of my son’s illness, I see an infinite number of missteps. I’d like to share a few of them here in the hopes that perhaps other parents can learn from our mistakes.
Tip 1: Educate yourself about treatment options
One of the biggest missteps my wife and I made was that we did not thoroughly review various eating disorder treatment centers to find one that would best meet my son’s needs. Comparing programs around the country was not even considered when my wife and I admitted our then thirteen-year-old son into his first residential program. My own ignorance at the time infuriates me now when I think about all that went wrong for him and how our uninformed decisions did not provide him with the best opportunity for treatment.
Getting Real means making the right decision in choosing a treatment center for your child — so that you can get the best help available at higher levels of care.
Tip 2: Identify and learn the tools that will best help you with your child’s care
As the primary carers for our son, my wife and I had heard about Family Based Treatment (FBT) early on in our son’s treatment. We thought we had mastered FBT by reading a book about it. Applying the principals of FBT when our son was first home became a losing battle for us as parents. His eating disorder was in control and our inadequate understanding of FBT delighted his eating disorder. The eating disorder was winning and the parents were losing. Hearing and reading about FBT is only a prerequisite to parent training in FBT. It was not until my son’s second admission to a treatment center that my wife and I were well-trained in FBT. These FBT skills evolved into our “new normal” upon our return home.
Getting Real meant fully understanding FBT so that the parents could win and the eating disorder could lose.
Tip 3: Be ready to challenge stigma
I was not prepared for a world of eating disorder stigmas targeted at parents as well as stigmas about people with eating disorders. I was asked by a family member, “what did you do to your son to make him this way?” I was so dumbfounded and appalled by this comment that I lost the words for a sensible retort. I kept on asking myself, “How can someone believe I caused my son to have a mental illness?” “Do they understand that eating disorders are not a choice?” I replayed these and many other questions over and over in my mind.
Getting Real means being able to challenge stigmas and creating boundaries with those who are so quick to judge our abilities as parents.
Tip 4: Don’t hide with shame; recognize how hard your child is working
Social occasions became arduous when my son was in treatment. I found myself avoiding parents who spoke about their child’s success in school or how great their child was in his/her sport. These parents may have been authentically creating dialogue about their child — or maybe these parents lived to tell others how perfect their child was. Either way, it became unbearable for me. Unconsciously, I allowed a badge of shame to be pinned on my chest. Where was my perfect child? My son was in a treatment center for an eating disorder. He was not in school and he was no longer active in his sport. Consciously, I chose to minimize these social occasions to avoid my self-imposed feelings of shame. After spending time living in the world of parental shame, I had to Get Real.
Getting Real meant acknowledging the hard work my son did in treatment and the enormous effort he put forth to reclaim his life’s values over his eating disorder. These accomplishments outweighed any other success factors dangled in front of me by other parents.
Getting Real also meant dealing with my own shame — allowing me to refocus on what did matter and how proud I am of the hard work my son does to live a healthy life.
Tip 5: Be ready to set limits
In my third parent-training program, while my son was in PHP, I accepted the absolute necessity of limit setting. Setting limits for a child with an eating disorder is a logical argument. When my son’s treatment team explained this concept to my wife and I, it made sense. We understood their message and the need to set limits. Knowing the enormous trigger it was for him, and how it was a huge contributing factor to his relapses, why did we allow him to return to his sport the first two times? While I may not have succinct answers for these questions, yet, I do know that limit setting for sport, a third time, has contributed to a sustained recovery journey at this point in time.
It took me three times, two to many, to Get Real as a parent on limit setting.
As I move through year five of My Get Real Journey as a parent, I have accepted that year six and forward will not be perfect. I try and stay ahead of my own learning curve. But, I do realize there will be many more times I will place blinders over my eyes. As long as I continue to uncover my eyes a lot faster than I did before, the better I will be at supporting my sons recovery journey with my own Get Real Journey.
David Bachman is a member of Eating Recovery Center’s Recovery Ambassador Council and a parent of an adolescent son with anorexia nervosa. David is passionate about building awareness on eating disorders and sharing his Get Real Journey.