For parents, partners, and other family members

Parents, spouses, siblings, and other people who love the person with an eating disorder are all too often that disorder’s forgotten victims. They want desperately to help, but everything they say or do is met with anger, withdrawal, or stony-faced silence. Denial and stubborn refusal to change, sometimes in spite of promises to “do better,” block meaningful dialog. Laughter and fun disappear from the home, which is overshadowed by guilt, anxiety, desperation, frustration, anger, and sometimes panic.

Nothing works. In spite of logic, pleading, bribes, threats, and carefully thought out reasoning, the person continues to lose weight, or food continues to disappear off the shelves. What can you do?

To change the disordered eating behaviors? Nothing. That is something the person her/himself must do after realizing that starving and stuffing have not, and never will, achieve self-confidence and a life that is truly satisfying.

Is there anything you can do to make life a bit brighter, to establish perspective and improve matters for all concerned? A great deal. Begin with the following:

  • If your child shows signs of an eating disorder, avoid denial.

Get him/her a thorough evaluation and treatment if it is indicated. The sooner treatment is begun, the sooner recovery can be achieved. Remember too that first symptoms are much easier to reverse than behaviors that have become entrenched.

  • If your child’s doctor or counselor recommends hospitalization, do it.

It may be lifesaving. It also may interrupt deeply ingrained behavior patterns that no other intervention can touch.

  • If family or couples counseling is recommended, do it.

The purpose of such sessions is not to blame you for the eating disorder but rather to help everyone create and maintain satisfying ways of relating and negotiating conflicts.

Family and couples counseling has another bonus: It shows your child or partner how reasonable people consult experts to solve overwhelming problems. It also gives you a safe place to deal with your painful feelings. You are hurting. You deserve relief.

  • Model healthy, effective coping behavior for your loved ones.

When you are stressed, avoid turning to alcohol, other drugs, anger, or other destructive habits. Teach your children, or your partner, by your example how to solve problems and meet needs by making, and following, logical action plans.

  • Model healthy food and exercise behaviors too.

Talk about the differences between dieting (does not work and can lead to binge eating) and healthy meal plans. Prepare healthy meals for your family and keep healthy snacks on hand. Never criticize your own body. Never criticize anyone’s body. If you do, you send a message to your loved ones that you accept nothing less than perfection. Follow an exercise plan that includes regular, moderate amounts of healthy activity, not compulsive, driven competition. Encourage other family members to be active too. Fun activities like hiking, biking, and swimming are usually more successful than regimented exercise at a gym. Turn off the TV, video games, and computer. Do something outside instead.

  • Never engage in power struggles over food.

You will lose. Don’t play food police either. You will lose, and the person will withdraw from the relationship. Leave food, eating, and weight issues with the person and her/his therapist. A good therapist will insist on medical intervention if the person gets into danger.

If your child is a picky eater, offer healthy, well balanced meals and let him/her decide what to eat. If food is refused and a snack demanded later, don’t provide it. Offer more of what was on the plate at mealtime.

  • Eat together as a couple or a family at least once a day.

As much as possible, keep mealtimes social, happy, and fun. Talk about things other than food, calories, and weight. Even if the person will not eat with you, or even if s/he eats only celery sticks, insist s/he be present to share in family life.

  • Last, but by no means least, take care of yourself.

You are under tremendous stress. One of you has already succumbed to the eating disorder. There’s no sense in you falling into the pit as well.

Participate regularly in some sort of stress reduction program — maybe tai chi, maybe bowling with friends, maybe a sport or hobby, but something that relaxes your body, soothes your mind, and gives you something else to think about for a few hours.

Use family or couples counseling to find relief for your own distress. The person with the eating disorder is not the only one who hurts.

Take time out regularly from the eating disorder. Don’t let it dominate your life. Now and then eat in a restaurant that you choose, not one deemed safe by your loved one. Make sure your child is safe, and then take a weekend trip just for fun with your partner or with friends. Participate in satisfying activities that bring you pleasure. If your partner will not accompany you because s/he wants to stay close to the refrigerator and bathroom, go alone or with friends. The eating disorder has already crippled one life. Don’t let it control yours as well.

A final thought for family members: Parents usually feel guilty, afraid that something they have done or not done has caused the ED. They are also fearful that their child is going to die. They may compensate by denying that anything is wrong, or conversely by pushing their child to “just eat normally.” Many parents place importance on their image in the community, and they are ashamed that they have “failed” as parents and produced a “failure” child.

Parents and siblings may try to arrange the kitchen and their eating habits to accommodate the person with the ED. It doesn’t work, and everyone else becomes resentful that they can’t eat what they want, when they want it.

Often an ED appears after parents have separated or divorced. In those cases, parents may blame each other vociferously and bitterly, driving themselves even further apart. In other cases, the stress of caring for a child with an ED creates or exposes problems in the marriage and makes them worse, sometimes leading to divorce or separation.

What to do? Family counseling can be effective. When all family members work with a professional therapist, counterproductive communication patterns can be improved, and everyone can learn healthier ways of meeting his or her needs while contributing to the general welfare of the family

When all is said and done, you cannot control or change your loved one’s eating behavior, but you can make family life a bit brighter. You can also arrange treatment for a minor child and encourage your adult partner to begin it. Formal treatment by a trained professional clinician is by far the most effective way of achieving recovery from an eating disorder. Do everything you can to make it happen.

If you have not already read through it, see How to Help for more tips.