When a parent is faced with their child having an eating disorder, it is an overwhelming time. It doesn’t matter if their child is an adolescent or young adult, the world of eating disorders can seem foreign and unknown.
An eating disorder impacts every facet of an individual’s life and is medically complex. As a person who is also medically complex myself (thanks rare disease!), I appreciate the challenge and the honor of working with individuals that other mental health professionals might away from working with.
My first introduction to the world of eating disorders was when I was a doctoral practicum student at a college health center. Since I was not yet specialized in eating disorders, I saw this patient for only a handful of sessions while she was waiting for her first appointment at a local eating disorder counseling practice. I remember going home after our sessions together and delving into eating disorder literature. The most striking difference among this and other mental health disorders is that eating disorders are the deadliest. This alone motivated me to become specialized in this area.
But, after more than 13 years working with young people with eating disorders, I have noticed that parents often carry conscious and unconscious stigma, biases, and misconceptions due to our often fat-phobic mainstream diet culture. This can have a devastating impact on the relationship with their child and the recovery process. Having observed and worked through many of these challenges, these are the learnings I think parents could benefit from the most.
Young people don’t choose to have an eating disorder
An all too common misconception I have seen is that people choose to have an eating disorder, and having willpower will simply allow the person to “get over it.” Parents find themselves becoming frustrated at their child, not understanding why their child can’t “just eat normally” or “stop purging.” Fact is, one can’t simply stop eating disorder behaviors because a parent, out of love and fear, demands them to. Eating disorders rewire how the brain works and are entirely complex conditions.
I recall one past patient whose father did not understand his eating disorder behaviors. The father would become frustrated and direct this at his son. Unfortunately in this case the father did not want to further understand eating disorders and he was unwilling to learn how to better support his son. This had a detrimental impact on their relationship. My focus with this particular patient was how he would recover, even without the support or understanding from his father. We spent a lot of sessions processing all this. I truly feel that a lack of parental support makes recovery much harder and the therapy process often lasts much longer. This patient persevered and is now fully recovered from his eating disorder and is wildly successful in everything he does.
Eating disorders are not shameful
Another thought many parents have is that the eating disorder is very embarrassing and shameful to the family. Many people I have worked with who have eating disorders carry a degree of shame. However, there is nothing shameful about having a mental health disorder. Parents may feel guilt, thinking they should have prevented the eating disorder or that they contributed to it. But what parents need to remember is that no one wants an eating disorder to happen, and keeping the eating disorder hidden and protected will only allow it to flourish.
There is no “best time” to get treatment
It’s not uncommon for parents to say they want to hold off on eating disorder treatment for their child “until it gets worse.” I specifically see this happening when a parent will call the practice, find out the time and financial commitment that is involved in eating disorder treatment, and then say they don’t think the eating disorder is “that bad” and that they can wait. Maybe a family trip is coming up, or their child is graduating high school, but many parents don’t realize that any eating disorder can kill, no matter how long a person has had the disorder and no matter a person’s size, weight, age, or gender.
What’s devastating is that if the eating disorder is at the point where parents are recognizing it, it’s likely a lot worse than they think. Many parents, upon the start of treatment, become surprised to learn the extent to which the eating disorder is impacting their child. Eating disorders are serious conditions that require medical and psychological treatment, just like any complex illness. It is not wise to wait.
Diet culture is not healthy, or the answer
Normalizing diet culture is by far the most toxic misconception of all. Dieting may seem safe because it’s talked about by friends, family, celebrities, athletes, and celebrity doctors. However, time and time again research shows that diets do not work and in fact can be quite dangerous. Diets by nature are restrictive, depriving, and do not meet one’s nutritional needs. Yet many parents hold on to the idea that because they diet, it is okay for their child to diet. They feel restrictive eating is the answer to their child becoming what they perceive to be a healthy weight. I think back to multiple cases where parents have been sure that weight loss is the answer. But, if a person does not explore what is behind eating disorder behaviors, no amount of weight loss will ever be good enough. It becomes this perpetual cycle of body fixation intertwined with self-worth. I educate parents and their child about health at every size. Dieting is never the answer, and only encourages the problem.
What I want parents to know is that they can arm themselves with knowledge and address their misconceptions. There are so many eating disorder resources out there that it can easily get overwhelming. It may be best to start out by viewing the websites of eating disorder non profit organizations such as The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).
From there, parents can get a sense of which resources are credible, how they can best obtain knowledge that sticks with them and what route for treatment would be best for their child. Most importantly, I would like parents to know they do not have to navigate eating disorder treatment alone.
Dr. Melissa Geraghty, Psy.D. is a Licensed Clinical Health Psychologist and creator of “The Ultimate Eating Disorders Bootcamp for Parents.” She is an international workshop presenter, a board member, and has received recognition for her advocacy efforts. You can follow her on Twitter @MindfulDrG or Instagram @DrMelissaGeraghty
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.