Supporting a loved one in eating disorder recovery: the do’s and don’t’s
If your child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, you’re probably feeling a whole lot of emotions. We see you.
In this article, we want to help you understand what you need to know to give your child the support they need to recover.
ONE: Your child is not their eating disorder
It is so heartbreaking to watch your child change before your eyes into someone you don’t recognise. The person you once knew has been taken over by another force that is driving their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
However, it is not your child that you are battling with – it’s the eating disorder. The person you love is still in there, fighting for their life.
We encourage both our clients and their loved ones to create separation between the person and the eating disorder. This is known in the clinical world as externalisation.
For example, rather than saying something like “You are being extremely difficult right now”, you might say “It seems like your eating disorder is making this extremely difficult for you”.
Research shows that externalisation can be an incredibly helpful strategy in the treatment of eating disorders as it removes some of the judgement and blame from the individual and places it on the illness.1
The purpose of this is not to absolve the person of their responsibility to challenge the eating disorder, but it does help to reduce some of the feelings of guilt and criticism that they are likely experiencing.
TWO: Eating disorders have a function
It may seem like an eating disorder is simply about food and weight, but that is almost never the case. Instead, eating disorders have a role to play in your child’s life. This is different for every person but might include creating a sense of control, acting as a coping strategy for dealing with stress, or acting as form of punishment or self-harm.2
Imagine you’ve had a difficult day at work. When you arrive home, what might you do to unwind? Maybe you enjoy a glass of wine, a walk outdoors or some trashy TV. Now imagine that this is taken away from you. How might you respond? Common emotions might be anger, distress, anxiety or withdrawal.
This mirrors what your child is experiencing in treatment as we attempt to take away their eating disorder behaviours. This is why recovery is a long and complex process in which the person must learn to replace these behaviours with healthier coping strategies.
THREE: Recovery is possible
We know that you’re probably feeling fearful and anxious about your child’s future right now and we wish we could give you a hug! We also want you to know that recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
Your child may not believe that they can recover. They may not even want to recover. However, it’s important that you can hold that hope for them while they are unable to do it themselves.
In the meantime, be a role model to your child. Model unrestricted eating behaviours, healthy movement and positive body image.
Take it one day at a time but also look to the future for motivation. Remind your child about their goals and ambitions and things to look forward to when they are recovered.
FOUR: Seek support for yourself
We’re sure you’ve heard it before but remember to put on your oxygen mask before you assist others.
You are very much in need of your own support network and self-care strategies right now. This might look like individual therapy, carer support groups (these are often free!) or leaving your child with a trusted family member so you can take a night off every now and then.
Beat UK has some great resources for carers which you can find here.
Last but certainly not least, remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that your child doesn’t need you to be perfect – they just need your unconditional love!
Other resources for carers:
- Nourishing Thoughts (our very own EHL podcast!) – A mother and daughter’s journey through anorexia recovery.
- Parents Survive to Thrive Guide by BC Children’s Hospital – a resource guide for parents of a child with an eating disorder, written by parents with lived experience.
- Eva Musby guide for families recovering from anorexia.
- How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder: A Simple, Plate-by-Plate Approach to Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food, by Casey Crosbie.
- Meal Support Training for Carers by Eating Disorders Queensland.
- F.E.A.S.T Charity – Eating disorder recovery: What parents need to know
If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, you can reach out to us for support in their recovery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karli Battaglia MDiet, APD
EHL Team x
- Reeves M, Sackett C. The Externalization of Anorexia Nervosa in Narrative Family Therapy with Adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 2020;:1-7.
- Marzola E, Panepinto C, Delsedime N, Amianto F, Fassino S, Abbate-Daga G. A factor analysis of the meanings of anorexia nervosa: intrapsychic, relational, and avoidant dimensions and their clinical correlates. BMC Psychiatry. 2016;16(1).