Having a teen with an eating disorder can be challenging at best.
The mountains have always been a favorite family vacation for me even when I was growing up and even now with my own daughters. In early spring of 2016, my daughter and I took a trip to the North Georgia mountains to photograph waterfalls. We were standing on a rocky landing when we noticed a young boy, maybe 10 years old, kayaking and in the near distance behind him was his father. They, too, were traveling to see the waterfalls; however, their journey had a much different perspective than ours.
Over the years of helping families with loved ones suffering from an eating disorder, I recognize that each journey to a successful recovery takes perspective, persistence, education, adaptation, and a lot of SUPPORT. There are many setbacks and pitfalls that families will move through before seeing their loved one through to recovery. I notice that when I initially meet these families, they walk in with feelings of exhaustion, stress, and confusion surrounding their child’s behaviors around food. One typical comment that is repeated resoundingly in my office is, “She won’t eat!”. Those words are filled with real anguish, fear, and uncertainty.
My daughter, who has been in recovery for 2 years now, decided to write down her own story of recovery. It is through her collaboration and my experience as a parent and counselor of those in eating disorder recovery that I offer this perspective on how to parent a child with an eating disorder.
Now stepping back to standing on the river banks in North Georgia– the rapids were running with a brisk wind that day and as we hiked, we noticed several kayakers making their way in and out of swirling, spinning, eddies and cascading mini-waterfalls. Settling on a sandy bank to take pictures, my daughter and I noticed the father and son pair paddling together. Ahead of them was a whippy white swirl of gushing rapid that was soon to be the pair’s newest adventure. Here is when the father took charge– calling out to the son to dock together the kayaks into a crevice so they could both see the rapid ahead. We could barely make out the father’s voice, but it was clear he was plotting the best course with his son; showing him where to bank, where was the best spot to turn and spin back out and then to paddle again to make it out of the swirl. You could see the son nod as the father asked, “Are you ready?”
Something pensive and unknown sparked both my and my daughter’s attention. We were mesmerized as the father left the son standing on the landing as he kayaked back out and then began the treacherous paddle to the rapid. The entire time he was calling out with expert confidence what to do as he made it through. Excited to see Dad paddle safely out, Son looked eager and anxious.
He called out to his son- “Your turn…I got you and you got this!”.
The boy looked smaller as he approached his kayak, but his dad kept calling out. They both knew there was only one way through, one way to keep moving, one way to join the rest of the kayakers and his dad. He was going to have to go through that swirling white monster.
He paddled hard towards the racing path of water and rocks. The whole time you could hear his dad above the noise- “Paddle right; hard right; harder right; let up, let up; take the spin; Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!!!” And with a fantastic “Hooray!”, we found ourselves screaming along with the duo! He did it! He did it! My daughter and I jumped and waved from the landing! It was a terrific moment to take in. And as I looked down the river as they paddled off, I recognized that the father and son would do this many, many times together before pulling ashore.
This memory has served as a frame of just how parents can guide and coach their children through the toughest of skills, including their relationship with food.
- Educate to Navigate: As parents, children with Eating Disorders need us to know how to navigate the river of recovery. EDUCATION is key to empowerment. It’s vital to seek out a family ED recovery group and find a counselor who specializes in eating disorders. There are amazing eating recovery books for both family and loved ones. In the river story, I’d like you assume and hope that the father knew how to kayak prior to leading his son down the river. Just as important as it would be to know the skill of kayaking before teaching it to your child, it is important to understand the skills of meal support, recovery talk, and body positive talk. Learning the basics about eating disorders is an important step in your child’s journey to recovery.
- You Be the Expert: As difficult as this challenge can be, your child has an illness that is not only affecting their body but also their thinking. You are now the food expert– they can no longer be the “healthy expert”, cook, or chef. Family meetings with a Registered Dietitian that has experience in eating disorders will offer a wealth of knowledge around what your child’s body and physical state really require to fully recover. Remember how the father in the story had a plan? He even called out instructions on how to paddle through the rapids. Many times, our loved one will need a specific meal plan from a registered dietitian to increase their skills around food. It’s important to have a meal plan when we are working on recovery– skill building is a healing principle to the brain.
- Model the Behavior: Many times, we as parents have grown up with our own definitions of and behaviors towards food. It will be invaluable to your child’s recovery success for you to have an open mind towards re-evaluating your own bias and relationship with food. The more people your child has on their team encouraging and modeling how to go through the meal challenges the more opportunity their brain has to rehearse the skills they will need to succeed. Do you recall how the dad in our river story went first? Yes, he had to do some modeling to demonstrate to his son the way through the rocky rapid. I can’t imagine how important that perspective was for the son, but I do know how important it is to our loved one battling an eating disorder. We, too, need to grapple with recovery as a new language and new relationship to food, first for ourselves and then for our child. The more we can model recovery language and positive food behaviors, the stronger and safer our loved will feel about navigating this new terrain.
- Set Boundaries and Repeat Often: Clearly, one intense moment was when the father had to keep repeating instructions to his son as he went through the rapid. The father never stopped setting the course, giving commands, and setting the boundary of safety. As a parent setting up boundaries around meal time, taking over meal preparation, and leading recovery food talk is an important piece of helping your child build recovery skills. This process will require parents to be tough at times, because their child’s life depends on it. It is helpful to realize that a parent’s job is to take back the control that the ED had over food choices in the past and then to strengthen the child’s skill to once again have a balanced relationship with food. This is not an easy step, but it is what the child will need in the moment to gain the skill. Parents become more like meal coaches during dining times because their child needs to hear how to maneuver through meal challenges. When I looked down the river, it was very apparent that our father and son team were going to be repeating this same skill over and over again before their journey was through. Similarly, parents need to be prepared that ED recovery requires a lot of repetition and skill building for the child to be successful. It’s a journey.
- Stay the Course: Remember what the goal and intentions are as there will be moments of despair and frustration. Lean on your team of professionals for support. They are all invaluable. Of course, there will be moments that you want things to be easier, and you want ED just to go away. You, too, may need a break or rest to regain your mindset in order to be the optimal coach for your child. Take the Break and then Stay the Course. Recovery is real and possible. Even though the river was full of rapids, the father-son team took a break to assess where they were going and the best way to get there. Not everyone’s journey in life will look the same. Your child’s ED recovery may mean that to see the waterfalls, you have to ride the rapids rather than hike the trail. That’s okay. We will still get to the same place as long as you are willing to Stay the Course. Recovery is worth the work!
Be Brave and Thrive,