“Is it my fault? Was there something I could have done to prevent it? Did I fail as a parent?”
Let’s get one thing straight: parents are not to blame for their child’s eating disorder. These questions are not going to help your family adjust to the current situation. It also won’t help if you dwell on past events and what you could have done. It’s best to move forward and help your child get on the path to recovery.
The first step towards your child’s recovery is finding out where the condition stems from. Research shows that eating disorders are a biopsychosocial illness. This terminology gives you a clue that there are multiple factors that resulted in this situation — failure as a parent isn’t one of them.
It’s Not Your Fault; It’s the Result of Many Different Factors
It’s devastating to find out that your teenager has an eating disorder. You might think that it’s your fault for not paying enough attention, or maybe for putting too much pressure on them. You might think you failed at parenting. However, now isn’t the time for pointing fingers and playing the blame game.
Parenting styles and eating disorders don’t go hand in hand. And while it helps to hear that your child’s condition isn’t your fault, it’s important that you’re aware of the contributing factors.
- Eating disorders might run in the family. If there’s one significant correlation between eating disorders and parenting, it’s that eating disorders might be hereditary. There isn’t a specific gene that causes eating disorders, but scientists are realizing through their research, small genetic variants that seemingly increase the risk. That said, you can’t put the blame on people in the family who also struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating. There is a genetic component outside of anyone’s control.
- They often stem from psychological underpinnings. While researchers are starting to recognize eating disorders as hereditary biological illnesses, psychology also plays a role. Children with a history of anxiety, harm avoidance, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and perfectionism are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder. These factors often lead to feelings of insecurity about weight, limiting calorie intake, exercising to the point of exhaustion, and binge eating with or without purging.
- They are influenced by sociocultural surroundings. Body positivity campaigns are more common now than ever, but it will take a long time before the “thin ideal” really disappears. Media is still predominantly focused on unrealistic beauty standards. Add in school bullying and insensitive comments, and a person’s self-esteem and body image could really suffer. Weight stigma, body dissatisfaction, and a fixation on the ideal body image are major contributors to the development of an eating disorder. Again, these factors are beyond a parent’s control.
The thought that various factors contributed to the development of your child’s eating disorder might help get rid of the unfounded guilt you’re carrying. It is best to flip that feeling of guilt into hope, knowing that you play a major role in their treatment and recovery.
Take a deep breath. Square your shoulders and be resolute in helping your child battle their challenges.
Don’t Dwell in the Past; Be Supportive from This Point Forward
Many years ago, therapists believed that parents were responsible for their child’s eating disorder. The few treatment centers that were available were often geographically undesirable, making it difficult for families to not only understand the treatment process but also participate in it.
Specialty trained treatment teams know better now. Eating disorders are the unfortunate result of the combination of genetics, psychological factors, and sociocultural surroundings. And instead of blaming parents for eating disorders, therapists and psychiatrists now recommend parental involvement.
Here are some strategies that can help your family deal better with the situation:
- Consider a multidisciplinary treatment program. There are 2.2 million American adolescents who struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Each case is unique, though. For example, some kids recover faster through art therapy. There are also kids who prefer individual counseling and others who respond better to group therapy. However, therapy isn’t only for your child. Your entire family is part of the journey so it’s important to choose a family-based treatment. A family-focused approach includes meal therapy, family therapy, and group therapy to process and learn new skills.
- Do what you can to make mealtimes more comfortable. This starts with setting a good example. Your child might need to follow a meal plan so prepare balanced meals for the entire family. Don’t be their food police, either. Engage in fun conversations to draw attention away from what they’re eating — and that they are. Your child will feel more comfortable at the dining table when they enjoy the company. Share funny anecdotes and interesting things you encountered throughout the day. But always avoid making comments about appearances. Encourage them to share about their day, too.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, call (866) 771-0861 today or submit a free, confidential inquiry form online. Don’t lose hope, help is just a call/click away.
- Be mindful of your tone and language when you’re talking to them. Food and mealtimes are sensitive topics to bring up when your child is receiving treatment and recovering from an eating disorder. Avoid saying things like, “If you really care about your family, you’ll join us for dinner.” This can cause feelings of pressure or make them feel unsafe. To a person with an eating disorder, saying they look healthy could be a jab at their weight. Instead, ask them how they feel. Don’t make a big deal when they eat — they might feel self-conscious. And instead of saying, “You’ll be fine,” be empathetic and show them you’re ready to help them recover, no matter how long it takes.
It’s okay to express sadness and guilt related to your child’s eating disorder. If you find yourself frustrated, do your best to maintain a supportive attitude.
Your support is already a massive boost for your child. More than that, it’s important to show them that you’re making an effort to understand them. Also, consider making adjustments at home to accommodate their treatment plan and communicate that to the rest of the family. It is easier for eating disorder patients to recover with the cooperation and support of the entire family.