It is this deeper component (beyond body image or weight concerns) that can make EDs tricky for parents to understand. EDs are not "superficial diseases" that can be fixed by just eating appropriately. To the question, "What can parents do to help?" this young teen suggests:
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.
This wise youth talks about the need for those who share their concerns to do so directly. She actually felt that someone needed to be straight-forward with her about having an eating disorder versus just sharing concerns about lost weight and changed attitudes. She became so skilled at explaining away these concerns that she'd even convinced herself that nothing was really wrong. She needed a wake-up call and so provided the following tips for parents on how to confront their 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.
There is one comment she makes that, as a parent, can be difficult to sit with: "Make sure to listen to these [excuses] with a critical ear, but at the same time realize that you could be wrong." Allowing that we may not be correct can be so VERY difficult, especially when every fiber of our being is screaming that something is horribly wrong! But I also know that a forceful, "I'm right/you're wrong" approach has never served me as well as a "First join, then lead" attitude. It is important that we provide space for the possibility of error while we also "Remember that eating disorders can be illnesses of denial and secrecy." Ahhh...the many yin and yangs of navigating through an eating disorder.
I encourage you to read the entire article. Although it is only one person's perspective, it provides a window for we parents to look for guidance that may be helpful in understanding our own child's view.
Sending blessings until next time,