How Eating Disorders Affect Families: 7 Ways to Practice Self-Care
There’s no question that having a child or teen in eating disorder treatment is one of the most difficult things a parent can experience. As a caregiver, it can seem impossible to find the time and energy for self-care. You’re ensuring that your child is safe, receiving the right care, and making progress in recovery. But are you also taking care of yourself?
Yes, children and teens with eating disorders need more attention and support than usual, but as a caregiver, you must also make the effort to care for yourself. This will help you be a present and helpful ally on the journey to eating disorder recovery.
How eating disorders impact families
Pediatric eating disorders can feel traumatizing — both to the person who suffers from the disorder and to the ones who love them. This takes a toll on all family members, particularly caregivers. It is important to know that:
- Families and caregivers do not cause eating disorders.
- Eating disorders impact the entire family.
- Caregiver stress is very real.
- It is your responsibility to support your child’s recovery.
You will be better able to care for your loved one when you are also cared for. If a little voice in your head expresses guilt about taking the time for self-care, acknowledge the voice and then remind yourself that investing in your own care will enable you to better oversee your child’s care.
Signs of caregiver burnout
Many caregivers feel an urge to rescue their loved one, particularly when a young person is struggling with an eating disorder or mental health issue. During this difficult time, your focus and energy are probably focused outward. We invite you to look at what is happening internally, as well.
Parents and caregivers of children with eating disorders commonly experience what is referred to as compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout which “is caused by empathy” and “is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people.” Has compassion fatigue shown up in your life? Here are some signs to watch for:
- Having difficulty maintaining an empathic perspective, or seeing your child as manipulative, uncaring, or selfish
- Misattributing the eating disorder symptoms to something negative about your child’s behavior, such as feeling like your child is “doing this on purpose” or “doing it to you” or “just wants attention”
- Feeling perpetually tired, withdrawn, hopeless or having a desire to give up or give in to the eating disorder
- Feeling angry and irritable and having difficulty managing your own emotions
Who is most at risk?
Not every parent caring for a child with an eating disorder suffers from compassion fatigue. But there are some risk factors that can increase the risk of caregiver burnout.
- Inadequate support system and/or lack of connection with informed others
- Insufficient resources, misinformation, or lack of understanding about the causes and symptoms of your child’s eating disorder and the treatment plan for their care
- Feeling overly responsible for every up and down in the process of your child’s recovery and placing too high an expectation on what is possible for you in your role as a support person
- Uncertainty about how to manage your emotions in general, but specifically in situations in which you might feel scared, overwhelmed, or have a lack of control
- Lack of attention to basics of self-care such as rest, exercise, and proper nutrition
How to manage caregiver burnout
Self-care can help caregivers reduce burnout, exhaustion and compassion fatigue. Here are some strategies to try:
1. Find acceptance
Reduce your attachment to previous expectations and face the current circumstances directly. You may need to accept that your child will not be able to play soccer this year because their weight is still too low. You may need to accept that mealtimes are going to be stressful for everyone at this point in recovery. When you face these realities directly, you reduce the struggling around wanting things to be different in this moment.
2. Identify the small wins each day
With realistic expectations, you can better identify the small wins. Maybe your child was willing to try a challenge food, or able to use a set of skills prior to purging. While these things might seem too small to celebrate, they are the building blocks towards recovery and should be recognized as such.
3. Reduce perfectionistic thinking
Take the pressure off yourself to know how to handle every situation a certain way or have the right response. Recognize your own humanity and know that you are trying your best and will sometimes make mistakes.
4. Make time for quality time together
Enjoy the relationship you have with your child without the entire focus being on the eating disorder. What do you and your child both enjoy doing? Maybe it’s watching a favorite TV show together, cooking a favorite meal or going to a local theme park. Whatever it is, prioritize having fun together.
5. Stay involved in treatment
Consider joining your child in family therapy sessions and/or having more contact with your child’s therapist or treatment team.
6. Consider professional help for yourself
Increase your support by seeking your own therapy or support group. Eating Recovery Center offers ongoing free virtual support groups for families and caregivers of those with eating disorders. Register to join a group here.
7. Always have hope
Importantly, have the expectation that eating disorders are treatable illnesses and full recovery is possible. Know that your involvement as a carer, advocate, ally and supporter for your child are essential in supporting their recovery. And be kind to yourself as you learn to navigate this difficult role better and better over time.
Types of self-care for caregivers
We encourage you to make a self-care plan that will help you cope with the challenges you are facing. There are several ways that you can do that, starting today. Start by asking yourself: What types of self-care do I most enjoy?
Family members are often emotionally affected when a loved one is facing a crisis like an eating disorder. Consider investing in emotional self-care which can include:
- Individual or group therapy
- A caregiver support group
- Talking with supportive friends or confiding in your partner
Therapy can help you unburden yourself, develop more effective strategies for supporting your child, and help you set good boundaries.
Physical self-care, like emotional self-care, offers you many choices. If this is your type of self-care, consider:
- Getting enough rest
- Nourishing and respecting your body
- Massage therapy or acupuncture
- Asking a loved one for a big hug
Do things that are fun and feel good to your body. A walk in the park can help to reduce stress and improve your mood.
While your loved one is in treatment, we encourage you to stay in touch with your values and continue to work towards your own personal goals. Be mindful of your inner and outer experiences. Engage in practices that make you feel at peace. That may include:
- Attending a religious service
- Attending a yoga or meditation class
- Reading spiritual or religious writings
- Spending time in prayer, meditation or silence
- Practicing gratitude and self-compassion
Honor your feelings and express your emotions in healthy ways.
Self-care is vital to caregivers
Parents may feel guilty — or even responsible — for their loved one’s illness and may even question if they are doing enough to help. If this seems familiar to you, remember this: you have loved your child, and you still love your child. You have done your very best for them, and you always will. You may not have all the answers, but you can learn. Maintain a sense of self-compassion and be willing to forgive yourself and others. With self-compassion comes the possibility of change and growth.
Find more self-care resources
View our Self-Care for the Caregiver Download and get even more tips on how to manage self-care when a loved one is in recovery. See a screenshot sneak peek below.
- Returning a Child to School After Eating Disorder Treatment
- Back to School Communication Strategies to Support Your Child
- Can My Child Stay in School While in Eating Disorder Treatment?
- School Refusal: Tips for Parents of Children with Eating Disorders
- Educational Support for Families of Children with Eating Disorders
This piece was updated and clinically reviewed by Maggie Moore, MA, LMFT, national family outreach manager for Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center on November 16, 2023.
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