Helping Your Child With An Eating Disorder
1. Be aware that their situation is not about you.
It can be tough to accept that someone you love is hurting, especially if it is your child. It might come as a shock to you, you may find yourself asking how you have never noticed. You may feel sad; question where it went wrong, what went wrong. You may experience some guilt, maybe you were aware that something was wrong but never got to courage to ask them. You may want to express these feelings by asking ''You are making me sad, why are you like this?''. You may tell them ''Stop this if you love me'' with all the good intentions because you want them to get better. However, if you take a second look at these expressions, you will see that they are all about you and how you feel. Right now, your kid is the one who's suffering and needs an adult's guidance. It is important that your kid knows that you will be on their side to support them.
2. First things first: talk to them!
As a parent, it is difficult to accept that your kid is hurting; making any confrontational conversation much more difficult. But having this talk is crucial! Don't try to do things in secret or indirectly; be open about the situation and talk to them as you would talk to an adult. Educate yourself on the topic but don't assume anything. Listen carefully to what your kid is experiencing.
3. Validate, validate, validate!
No judgments, no assumptions. They are already judging themselves a lot in their head, they need to hear that what they are going through is valid. Do your best to listen to them neutrally and also keep your reactions neutral. No ''But you are upsetting me''s or ''You are so beautiful/handsome, why are you doing this to yourself?''s. They are not doing this to themselves, if they could have gotten better on their own, they would have. Also, make sure to avoid sentences like ''It is just a phase'' and ''Everyone struggles with their body image, that is normal''. Their eating disorder is something they are genuinely struggling with and it is not normal, nor a phase. Their feelings and their eating disorder are valid no matter how you see the situation.
4. Express your love and care first, then ask what you can do for them
You may not know what to do and that is completely normal. Tell them with compassion that you want to be there for them and ask them what would be helpful for them. This will make them feel supported. It is also important to explicitly and frequently express that you love them. You may think that you do it already, but trust me, they will need to hear it more often. They will need to know that you will be there for them no matter what. Ultimately, as a parent, regardless of what they say, you should gently guide your child towards therapy.
5. Act normally around food.
It is important to be sensitive and careful but also ''normal''. They're probably already nervous and their mind is racing when they think about food, so it's best if you make them feel normal. They will not want more attention drawn to food. All they want to feel is "normal" after a long day of struggle with their body image and nutrition. For example, do not keep them from eating something or do not force them to eat; thinking that it will help them. It won't. Unless you're asked the opposite, act as if you didn't know anything about their ED around food.
6. Do not ignore the red flags thinking ''it will just pass'' or ''it's their privacy''
It is of course important to respect the personal boundaries of your child. However, if you see them struggle with their diet and body image and not doing anything thinking that ''it is only a phase'' or that ''it's their privacy'' might make them feel alone and unseen. Do something about the situation when you notice it. They can hate you now, but they will thank you later.
You cannot fix your child but you can be there for them. And that is more than enough.