Parenting a child with an eating disorder: Struggling as a parent and what to do?

It can be incredibly hard to know that our child is struggling. We can feel so helpless and powerless in the face of an illness that has such a grip over our loved one.

It is hard to know what to do to help, especially when attempts to reach out and connect are met with resistance and denial. We can hold immense blame for what our child is going through and the experience can be all-consuming.

Yet it is vitally important to keep going and hold onto hope that recovery is possible. But “keeping going” is only possible if you are receiving the support that you need as well. Remember the classic phrase, “you cannot pour from an empty cup” – eating disorders require a lot of pouring. 

Remember, they are not the eating disorder

It might feel like you’ve lost your child to the eating disorder. Perhaps you see glimpses of their true personality at times when their “guard” is down, and this distinction can mimic a split personality.

It can be helpful to separate the illness from the person underneath, noting that when resistance arises, it is not them – it is the eating disorder. Keep holding onto your child underneath the symptoms of the eating disorder, recognising that an eating disorder is often a result of emotional distress which is causing them to cope in maladaptive ways. The eating disorder is “helping” them to feel in control, so rather than respond to the eating disorder, respond compassionately to the child underneath who is most likely struggling.

Look after yourself

It’s not uncommon to feel very isolated in the experience of our children’s suffering. So much so that reaching out for our own support may feel peripheral and of much less importance. Yet it is vitally important that you get proper support too. 

Eating disorders are often described as “illnesses of the family” because they do not impact the sufferer alone. All members of the family are impacted as they try to come to terms with an illness that is both psychological and physical.

As a parent, we are prepared to move heaven and earth to ensure that our child gets well again, however, we have to have the strength within to keep doing this. Recovery does not come overnight, and there will be ups and downs. Ensuring that you can be present in this process is incredibly important and this can only happen if you are being looked after too.

Enforce boundaries

The experience of our child’s illness can be all-consuming. We may feel like we’re losing ourselves in the experience too. Similar to above, we have to make sure that we are looking after ourselves in the process and one way of doing this is to enforce boundaries. 

If you are in a relationship, make sure you are spending quality time with your partner and to not neglect this aspect of your happiness. Engage in activities that aren’t all associated with your child’s illness. Remember who you are and what you need from life and carve out time to spend engaging in these activities on a weekly basis. You are human too.

Shed the blame

We can hold immense responsibility for the suffering of our children. Perhaps we stay up at night questioning how we let it get this far, or what we could have done earlier to intervene. Whilst this thinking feels important, it is not helpful and only serves to ruminate on the past as opposed to engaging in the present and planning for the future. It can also be incredibly self-punishing to think this way.

There is no one cause for an eating disorder. So many factors can play a role and – unfortunately – there’s no one simple explanation. Perhaps past family events or life experiences have contributed, which may be the case for your child, but remember that it’s often much more complex and carrying self-blame or guilt can actually prevent us from being fully available to our child and aiding their recovery.

Get support

More than anything, get support. You too are worthy of seeing a specialist psychotherapist or psychologist.  You can get support for you and your child via your GP. There are also lots of resources on Beat www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk or Orri https://www.orri-uk.com to support you and your family on the path to recovery.


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