9 Important Rules for Supporting a Teenager with an Eating Disorder
So If your adolescent son or daughter has an eating disorder and is not currently receiving the help they need then you have to do everything you can to make that happen: get them assessed and if necessary, into treatment.
But once they are getting help and working with professionals, what's your role then?
- How do you support recovery while letting go of primary responsibility for medical care and treatment?
- How do you support recovery without overstepping your bounds of expertise and while maintaining a healthy relationship as a parent first, and not as a psychologist, doctor or nurse?
It's not an easy thing, and it's hard to step back knowing as you do how dangerous eating disorders can be, but thankfully you can still do a lot, in the home and as a parent, to encourage positive change and to support the recovery process.
9 Ways to Support a Son or Daughter Getting Eating Disorder Treatment:
Get Educated about Eating Disorders
The more you understand about the compulsions of disordered eating the better you'll understand what your son or daughter faces and the better you'll be able to support them through the challenges of recovery. As a starting point, gaining expertise makes a lot of sense.
Get Yourself Some Support
It seems counter intuitive - you want to help you child after all, so why are you the one going out to support group meetings?
But parenting an adolescent with disordered eating is scary; and you don't know what you're supposed to be doing and how involved you're supposed to get - or when to let it go and when to force the issue.
Using the strength, support and expertise of other parents facing very similar challenges removes some of the uncertainty and loneliness from the ordeal and may help you maintain a better emotional state - and at the end of the day, you can't offer much to your child if you're falling apart yourself.
Don't Model Behaviors That Encourage Disordered Eating
Do as I say and not as I do won't work very well, so make sure your own behaviors don't encourage unhealthy eating or a fixation on appearance or body image.
Are you a positive role model?
Before you answer yes or no, you're going to have to take a good long look at your own beliefs and behaviors about body shape and appearance and the relevance of weight and beauty in today's society.
- Eat Healthily and Enjoy Regular Exercise.
- Try to serve meals that are not 'diet' in any way, but that are balanced and nutritious.
- Make sure to model an active lifestyle and exercise for enjoyment and health benefits, and not solely as means of weight control
Keep The Communication Flowing
You want to make sure your son or daughter knows you're available to talk about whatever they need to talk about.
The more involved they get in every step of the treatment process the more ownership they take over their own recovery, and this includes getting involved in decisions about how you can best offer your support.
- Ask your son or daughter what you can do to help and also ask them to tell you about those things you do with good intentions which aren't actually helpful, or possibly even destructive.
- Keep the door open and have lots of these types of conversations and based on what you hear, negotiate with your teen to find support arrangements that everyone can live with.
Be open too about your own feelings and about how you need to feel involved in the treatment and recovery process.
Have this support conversation regularly, because as your child moves through the treatment process the support he or she needs or wants will likely change.
Be Willing to Initiate Family Therapy and to Otherwise Participate Fully in the Therapy Process When Requested to Do So
Relationship and interpersonal issues within the family may impede the recovery process, and in some cases, family dynamics may have contributed to the occurrence of the problems in the first place.
Getting family therapy and participating fully with any requests from your child's treatment team can help strengthen the effectiveness of the family as a supporting unit and ensure that no behaviors within the family cause worsening symptoms.
Let Your Teen Be a Teen
Your first impulse as a parent is to protect your child.
And when it comes to eating disorders, this natural impulse can lead to a desire to retake control over food and food related behaviors and to start treating your adolescent like a much younger child.
- Monitoring the bathroom
- Counting food
- Searching belongings for laxatives or pills
- Monitoring internet usage etc.
Unfortunately, acting on this very natural impulse to protect your child by retaking control doesn't work very well for a person already in adolescence.
The truth is, your child is going to have to beat this eating disorder on their own and to do so they're going to have to grow up and make their own choices - and they can't grow up if you won't let them!
And even worse, in many cases, adolescents respond to a loss of control with more severely disordered eating.
So tough as it is, you have to let go and let your son or daughter out to do all those things that other adolescents of the same age are doing.
Don't Let the Eating Disorder Take Over the Family
No one in the family, including the child with the eating disorder, benefits when the disease takes over all aspects of family life.
Your child is more than his or her disease, so make sure you maintain a relationship that is based on more than just eating.
Try to do things together based on mutual interests and spend time together on activities beyond just 'recovery'. If your relationship with your son or daughter has deteriorated to a point where you can no longer really enjoy each other's casual company, then you may want to consider family therapy to start rebuilding things.
And don't neglect other members of the family either as you strive to offer your best support. A healthy and functioning family is supportive in itself, and to stay healthy all members of the family need the attention and love and support they too deserve.2
Don't Get Overexcited By Day-By-Day Changes
Recovery from an eating disorder is a long-haul process and there will be ups and downs and plateaus of little progress along the way.
While celebrating the victories always makes sense it's important to avoid getting too upset (and upsetting your son or daughter at the same time) by small downward turns. Try to avoid comparing today's eating to yesterday's and take a bigger-picture approach to things, comparing recent symptoms to symptoms from months ago, or from the beginning of the treatment and recovery process.3
Always Build Up - Never Tear Down
Adolescents with eating disorders are often very hard on themselves. They often suffer from low self esteem and often display personality characteristics such as rigidity and perfectionism.
Your teens needs support and encouragement and positive affirmations, and never criticism or harsh judgement.4
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