By Lauren Harding, Recovery Coach

Eating disorders are difficult to understand, difficult to treat, and as a parent of a child who is struggling with an eating disorder, difficult to live with. Parents often express that something seems to take over their child when they are struggling, or that they only occasionally see the child they used to know. They catch glimpses of laughter, joy, and normalcy which often gets taken over by anger, fear, and stress- especially in situations involving food.

Your child was born with an intuitive healthy core self, however for one reason or another, that self becomes taken over by the eating disorder. I do not view the eating disorder as some outside entity, but as part of your child. Their disordered relationship with food is the physical manifestation of their internal emotional suffering or lack of ability to regulate their emotions. The eating disorder is serving a purpose, in that it is “helping” them to cope. As the parent, your role is not to get rid of the eating disorder, but rather to help your child to strengthen the healthy part of themselves so that THEY CAN DO IT. It is a vital part of recovery for the healthy self and eating disorder self to start communicating so that your child can start to identify what purpose the eating disorder self is serving. The healthy core self can then take over that role and put the eating disorder out of a job.

As you encourage your child to challenge the eating disorder self, the sense of powerlessness you feel over the eating disorder will subside. An old Cherokee Indian legend illustrates the most important battle of our lives is between the good wolf and bad wolf inside of all of us. The wolf that wins is the one that we choose to feed. You can support them in feeding the healthy core part of themselves so that the eating disorder becomes weaker and eventually no longer serves a purpose.

As the parent you can be that support for your child to reach out to instead of the eating disorder. The more they reach out to you, or another loved one, or member of the treatment team, the weaker the eating disorder becomes. Remember that you are on your child’s team, and you can work together to challenge the eating disorder behaviors. You can do this in a few different ways:

  1. First and foremost, just be there for your child. The eating disorder thrives in guilt and shame. The more that you try to cultivate an open and safe environment, the more likely it is that your child will turn to you instead of the eating disorder.
  2. Help your child to differentiate the eating disorder part and healthy part of themselves. You might say something like, “It sounds like the eating disorder part of yourself is pretty loud right now, how can we get more in touch with the healthy part of you? What is it saying? How are you feeling?” Checking in with their emotions can let you and your child know what is especially triggering for the eating disorder and guide you as you navigate how to attend to those emotions differently.
  3. Ask what they would say to a loved one if they were participating in a similar behavior or if they said a similar comment. An example would be if your child says, “I am an ugly fat pig and I can’t eat that pizza.” You might ask them how they would respond if their little cousin or niece or nephew said that to them. This engages the healthy part of themselves. Remind them that their healthy part of themself is there.
  4. Gently remind your child that the eating disorder never fulfills its promises. Often individuals who struggle with eating disorders feel like it helps them to be “in control” or to “deal with stress”. The reality is it never REALLY is doing what it says it is doing. And there is always a COST to keeping it. Validate your child’s experience while also reminding them of the benefits of change.