In the following blog, a teenager who has overcome an eating disorder reflects on what she wishes more parents knew about the condition. For more information visit Children’s Center for Young Women website, or this parent’s guide to eating disorders.
I never thought I was fat. In fact, I liked the way I looked before I developed an eating disorder and liked my body less and less as I continued to lose weight. What a lot of people, including my parents, didn’t understand is that an eating disorder functions as a coping mechanism for other problems in someone’s life.
As I met more people who suffered from eating disorders, I realized that many of us had something in common. Many felt some sort of loss of control in their life and had used their eating disorder as a reaction or way to deal with it. Although for some people bad body image did play a large role in what started their eating disorder, for a lot of people it was the feeling of losing control in their life that they discovered was the initial cause of their eating disorder.
People with anorexia nervosa feel like they are able to gain control through extreme dieting and strict rules around food. They control what they eat, and eventually the shape and size of their body. Although it is an unhealthy coping mechanism, the eating disorder gives them a sense of relief that there is one thing in their life they can completely control without anyone else being able to have an influence.
Many people I met who suffered from binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa suffered from a loss, trauma, or other stressors in their life that also made them feel like they had no control over themselves, or their emotions. This loss of control over their life eventually materialized into a loss of control around food, known as a binge.
I think the most common misconception about eating disorders is that they are all about weight and shape and therefore are easy to overcome by “just eating normally.” Recovering from an eating disorder is a much more complicated process. Recovery requires self-esteem and confidence. It also involves diving much deeper to figure out what purpose the eating disorder serves, and what relief they get from engaging in behaviors that they know are extremely unhealthy and they often hate.
What I wish all parents knew about eating disorders is that they are not superficial diseases that are all about losing weight and wanting to be skinny; they are a coping mechanism with causes that go much deeper.
What can parents do to help?
- Listen to whatever information your child might be open to discuss. Be sure to keep an open mind to what they are saying and to never sound judgmental, even if you can’t understand what they are feeling. If your child is not ready to talk about what they are going through, don’t force them because they might not be ready to open up. It’s really important to be patient and let them know you will be there to support them whenever they are ready to talk.
- Never make them feel guilty for what they are going through or how they feel. No matter how much you might not understand what they are going through, and no matter how hard and taxing the treatment process may be, make sure that you are supportive and don’t make it seem like they are a burden to you. There were a lot of girls I met who were struggling with an eating disorder who were afraid to ask for the help and support they needed from their parents because they were afraid they would be too much of a burden on their family.
- Be open to family therapy. Family therapy can be one of the hardest, but most useful parts of treatment for an eating disorder. It gives the family a chance to discuss what your child is going through and talk about family issues when there is someone else who can act as a problem solver. Family therapy is also a good place to figure out what are the most helpful ways to offer support.
I didn’t want to have an eating disorder, but I was scared of what would happen if I got rid of it.
No one enjoys having an eating disorder. The two years I struggled with the condition were the hardest years of my life. Having an eating disorder impacts every single part of your life and really does consume you. It impacted not only my health, but also my social life, school work and personality. All my friends who struggled with an eating disorder agreed that as their eating disorder became more severe, the more it controlled and even ruined their life.
However, because eating disorders function as a coping mechanism, they obviously also offer a sense of relief and benefits. Many of my friends who were struggling with an eating disorder said that they couldn’t picture their life without it because it got them through some of the hardest times of their life. When a lot of them sat down to make a list of pros and cons of their eating disorder, they would find that the positives outweighed the negatives. Because of this, a lot of people find themselves struggling to find motivation to recover from their illness and ask for the help they need.
I needed a wake up call.
Although it was apparent to my parents and friends that I was struggling with an eating disorder for over two years, no one directly approached me about having one. Over those two years people did express their concerns about me losing weight and how I was acting differently, but every time I would explain my way out of it and assure them that nothing was wrong. Because of this, I was even able to convince myself that I was completely fine.
Looking back, if my parents and friends had been more straightforward with me about having an eating disorder, I might have asked for help sooner. Like I said before, because eating disorders are coping mechanisms, they serve a function and a lot of the time someone might be too scared to give it up and need a push from someone else.
Tips for parents on how to confront your child:
- Be direct. One of the most important things is for you to be completely honest about exactly what you have noticed and what you are worried about; don’t dance around the issue. Insist on your child going for a medical check up if you are worried.
- Don’t expect a positive reaction. People can be very defensive when they are confronted about having an eating disorder because they go through a lot of effort to hide it, or don’t want to admit that it’s actually a problem. Because of this, they might have a lot of excuses to explain away your concerns about their behaviors. Make sure to listen to these with a critical ear, but at the same time realize that you could be wrong. Remember that eating disorders can be illnesses of denial and secrecy.
- Be supportive. Make sure they know that you are there for them when they are ready to talk, but don’t force them to talk right away if they are not ready.
- Be proactive. Even if your child isn’t ready to admit that they are struggling with an eating disorder, suggest seeing a therapist to talk about other issues.