Walking on Eggshells: My Child Has an Eating Disorder
Having a child or other loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder is scary stuff. You want to ease their pain and no doubt you are worrying about whether you are saying the “right” thing. This can be agonizing at times, as you try to figure out the best things to say.
#1: Remember that healing is an ever-changing process
Why are many well-meaning compliments like, “You’re doing so well” and “I’m so glad you’re healthy” met with emotional backlash? When this happens, you may feel powerless, stupid, shameful, guilty, sad, worried and angry all at the same time. And yet you desperately hope that you can find a way in. I have to say, if this is your hope:
GOOD FOR YOU!
When talking with a child who has an eating disorder, you may sometimes feel like you’ve said the right thing. But the next time you use those words, you receive a very different response. Some days, you spend hours mentally reciting what you hope are helpful things you’d like to say, only to have your child shrug you off and tell you that they don’t want your help.
When this happens, it can hurt.
The truth is that people with eating disorders may approach conversations from more than one perspective at any given time. This is because:
- They want to recover, but may not know how.
- They are also scared to give up the comfort of the eating disorder.
- They can be so confused that they don’t even know what they want anymore.
What is important for you to know is that this is all a normal part of the recovery process. And as you walk along the journey with your loved one, remember that you, too, really only have your perspective to see things from.
#2: Remind yourself why you want to talk
Before opening up a dialogue pause for a moment and ask yourself. “Why do I want to talk to him/her in the first place?” There can be many reasons:
- Because you care
- Because you’re scared
- Because you love them
- Because you believe in them
- Because of many other unique and wonderful reasons that are important to you
This is why you talk to them.
When a child has an eating disorder, it is okay to be honest with them and to tell them exactly how you feel – keeping in mind that what you say should be age-appropriate. It’s also important to be willing to witness whatever emotions they are experiencing: mad, reactive and more. It may be challenging but if you are getting emotion from your loved one, that is a good thing! It means that they feel safe enough with you to show you how they feel, and that there is a part of them that cares enough to show you that they are still hurting.
As a caregiver, you must take care of yourself, too.
#3: Be kind to yourself
Caregiver stress is very real. It can be difficult to find the right balance when helping your child with any illness, including an eating disorder.
Don’t let this stress get to you. The common narrative of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you help someone else always stands true. More often than you’d think, often the best approach in communication is just to listen, to be there for them, and to tell them that you love them. Support them and have faith.
Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, CEDS is Senior Clinical Director at Eating Recovery Center in Denver.