A Parents' Guide to Eating Disorders

As a parent it is very distressing to realise that your child may have an eating disorder. But try to remember that there are many things you can do to help your child recover and live a normal life again.

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1.What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder may seem to be about food and weight control but experts believe that it is in fact a way of coping with anxiety and depression and avoiding other problems. Young people worry about things such as academic achievement, their relationships with family and friends, or whether people find them attractive.

Eating disorders occur in adolescence, but other age groups are affected as well. I often hear from parents of older children and even from people with grown-up children. Eating disorders affect boys as well as girls. Although eating disorders are usually associated with very restrictive eating, there are many kinds of eating disorders. Binge eating, eating in secret and excessive exercise can be just as troubling.

2. The sources of eating disorders

Fears about appearance, weight and eating are signs that point to deeper feelings of ‘emptiness’ inside, even though on the outside the person may seem well balanced and successful.

Eating disorders have a wide variety of sources. These include:

-Escape from feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem

-Peer pressure

-Lacking in maturity and a sense of purpose

-Response to trauma

-Bullying at school, by the media and on social networking sites about size and body shape

-Knowing others with an eating disorder (either friends or through websites)

-Pressure to look at certain way, or physically ‘conform’; compounded through overuse of social networking sites e.g. Instagram.

3.Signs and Symptoms

You may be the first to notice that something is wrong with your child, or perhaps friends, siblings or teachers may be concerned.

Signs that your child may have an eating disorder include:

-Restricting certain foods or food groups

-Subscribing to faddy diets or ‘clean’ eating

-Losing or gaining a lot of weight

-Talking about themselves as fat even though they are not

-Counting calories in an obsessive way

-Lacking energy

-Admiring thin celebrities and peers and comparing themselves negatively to skinny role models.

-Avoiding family meals and social events

-Disappearing into the bathroom after eating

-Visiting the ‘pro-ana’ or ‘pro-mia’ websites that promote anorexia and bulimia

-Taking food from cupboards and eating it in secret

-Staying up very late

-Exercising to excess

4.How does it feel to have an eating disorder?

In order to avoid painful feelings, a person with an eating disorder often transfers her attention to food and controlling her eating. Although this is difficult and upsetting, confronting emotional issues and coming to terms with the causes of the problem can feel even tougher. Thinking about food can become an obsessive way of life, and getting a sufferer to seek treatment can be challenging.

A young person with an eating disorder needs a safe therapeutic environment in which to explore her problems. A skilled and experienced counsellor can help her examine psychological and behavioural issues. With support, a young person can learn to manage overwhelming feelings and regain a sense of self-esteem.

5.How eating disorders affect the whole family

The presence of a child with an eating disorder will deeply affect the entire family. For parents, having a daughter or son with an eating disorder is an emotionally challenging experience. It can feel as though your child has been taken away from you. People often say, “the child I knew has disappeared”.

Family counselling can assist parents at many stages in the recovery process. Even before your child is willing to accept help, counselling can help you as parents to work together to present a united front and develop consistent strategies to help your child. It is likely that every member of the family will need some advice and support.

6.Helping your child

Although the treatment of eating disorders requires professional help, family members play an important part in the process.

You must be prepared to be actively involved in your child’s treatment and recovery.

The first thing you should do if you suspect your child has issues with food and weight is to face the problem in a loving and non-judgmental way. Eating problems do not go away by themselves.

Seek help as soon as possible – the more entrenched the illness becomes the harder it is to overcome.

Make sure you get the right sort of help. Talk to a professional who has specific experience of eating disorders. You will need to develop practical strategies to support you in:

-Monitoring your child’s health and nutrition, with the help of your GP

-Offering simple and nutritious meals, which the family prepare and eat together

-Seeking whole family treatment to help support your child and to resolve underlying emotional issues.

Sometimes residential care is unavoidable to protect your child’s long-term health. This may be another step towards your child’s overall recovery process. Parents can still have an important role to play during this stage of recovery.

It can be a long and difficult road – but remember, your child is likely to get better more quickly with your support and involvement.

7.Looking ahead

Acknowledge what is happening now, but don’t forget to focus on the future. Success comes on the day when your child can eat normally, dress without anxiety and take part in daily life without stress – and she can feel joy again.

Next month my blog will recount the first hand experiences of a former eating disorder sufferer, her journey to recovery and an interview with her father and the role he played in her treatment.

Mary Wood

“Food is much more than just a matter of fuel – it marks us as human, situates us in time and place and shapes our relation to each other and the rest of the world” (Polly Russell) Mary Wood has over 15 years of experience working with individuals and families to treat the full spectrum of eating disorders, weight management and body image. Mary helps clients move beyond the established diet myths and beliefs, to a new and mindful relationship with food and eating. Mary helps clients understand and address root causes, which may include trauma, stress and low self-esteem and she understands how disordered eating can blight happiness, relationships and self–belief. Mary empowers her clients to achieve greater vitality and resilience by challenging destructive patterns and establishing new routines and relationships, and teaching new skills to cope with everyday situations. Mary uses an integrative and multi-disciplinary based approach to focus on the unique journey of each patient. When appropriate Mary works with clinical practitioners, dieticians and nutritionists. Mary sees clients in West London and online. She also runs online group programmes for weight management.