3 Ways Parents Positively Impact Eating Disorder Recovery - Courtney Morton, LCSW
"Will recovery be possible? How long will it take? Am I saying the right things to my child?” These are questions we often hear from parents when a child is in treatment for an eating disorder.
I wish I had a crystal ball to answer these questions for families, but, unfortunately, recovery can be challenging, long, and unpredictable.
Parenting can be a thankless task, especially when supporting a child in recovery from an eating disorder. Many parents and caregivers feel in the dark about how to help their loved one heal and wonder if the kind of support they are providing is in fact “the right” kind of support.
Families can be empowered in knowing that they are doing everything they can to support their loved one’s recovery, particularly with the help of advanced caregiving skills taught in Emotion Focused Family Therapy (EFFT).
Within EFFT, a parent’s brain is the most powerful tool to effect change in a child, no matter how old. The emotional connection within the parent-child attachment makes it possible to harness that love to promote a lasting recovery.
In thinking about EFFT and eating disorder treatment recently, a couple of things came to my mind regarding parents and caregivers. I wanted to share them with you here today:
- Kids always want you to help them heal.
As a clinician, whether the parent is in the room or not, I feel their presence and know how much their child yearns for authentic connection with them. This is true no matter how old a child is and no matter what they say. A child is never too old to benefit from being validated by their parent. Validation is the recognition of emotion in another. It isn’t permissiveness but instead the deep acknowledgement of someone else’s feeling. Parents can help their kids learn to recognize emotions and also connect in a deeper way through this type of reflection.
Here’s an example of how parents can validate their children by reflecting what they are feeling: “It seems like you’re angry right now. It makes sense that you would feel upset because…”
Think about a balloon deflating; when we can name a feeling or help a child recognize an emotion, the intensity of that emotion diminishes, and we are more clearly able to think about values-oriented action.
A child is also never too old for a parent to come to them to initiate healing for relationship ruptures from the past. A parent’s deep validation and relationship repair can significantly unburden a child of the shame and self-blame that they feel in their ED, opening a clearer path for recovery.
- All parents have the capacity to support their child’s recovery.
To do this, some parents may require emotion or behavior coaching or additional skills training — and that’s OK. You don’t have to be a doctor or therapist to learn the skills that are necessary and effective for your child. In fact, nobody can do it better than you.
If your child was born hard of hearing, you would learn sign language so you could talk to them, wouldn’t you? Similarly, if you child was born with vulnerabilities that contributed to their eating disorder (e.g. being highly sensitive, prone to intense emotions, etc.), you can learn how to relate to them more effectively and teach them how to navigate the world building on their strengths and reducing their vulnerabilities.
Go ahead and try it. Start with knowing that no matter what they say, your child wants your help in their recovery. They may never acknowledge this, but rest assured that they do.
- Change doesn’t have to be radical.
Only a slight change is necessary to impact a person’s (or family’s) whole trajectory. What a difference parents and caregivers can make with small shifts in relating that increase emotional connection.
For example, when parents keep their own emotions regulated, their child is more likely to remain regulated. Parents can work toward their own state of emotion regulation through seeking support for themselves and engaging in self-care on the long journey of recovery. Also, parents can strive for the optimal level of directiveness in their relationship with their child, taking the lead when necessary and allowing for the child to make choices when appropriate.
Each day, ask yourself a couple of questions, like, How can I help my child today? What emotional connection is possible with my child today?
You can do this. In fact, no one is more capable than you.
Courtney Morton, LCSW, is a primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center in Austin, TX and the mom of two energetic children. She loves walking with families down the road to recovery.