When a child develops an eating disorder, there are many factors that need to be looked at. It would be ridiculous to say that parents do not play their part in the development of their children so clearly the parenting style used does have to be looked at carefully.
It may sound clichéd, but eating disorders are all about control. They are an extreme way for the sufferer to find a way out of his/her misery. This is the bit that many struggle with when attempting to understand those who either over eat or under eat. Why they say would someone cause so much misery for themselves? It really does feel bad to be starving or stuffed. Trust me. I know.
It isn’t easy to understand that for the eating disordered person, their relationship with food is the only thing that provides a way of feeling in charge, immune to the pain that life is currently causing them. There are no exceptions to this. Those suffering from eating disorders are in extreme pain and that is caused by the current circumstances they find themselves in. Think about it. Nobody would want to cause harm to their bodies if they were happy. They just wouldn’t.
So the first thing to do is to accept that if your child has an eating disorder he or she is unhappy. People do not develop eating disorders to upset or hurt anybody. They do so to try to avoid their own pain. Blaming or rejecting your eating disordered child will only make things worse. Yes your child is angry and hurt and the only way to sort this out is for you, the parent, to look at your behavior and see what could be causing this. Your child may be willing to discuss their feelings with you if he or she feels that you are open to listening and changing.
There are many feelings that your child may be experiencing. These mainly center around a feeling of being objectified. Typical adjectives that sufferers of eating disorders use to describe themselves are ‘fat, disgusting, ugly,’ and other equally derogative terms. These are adjectives that are meant for objects, not for people.
Those suffering from Eds are unable to view themselves as individuals with value. In order to help them to do so there are a number of questions that you can ask yourself.
Do you respect your child’s opinions? Really respect them. Do you sit down with them and openly discuss in a way that your child really feels that she can speak her mind and be completely honest with you without fear of a comeback either now or at a later date?
Do you give your child privacy? Lack of trust in a child causes tremendous damage. Show your child that he or she is entitled to know that her diary will not be read, that you won’t listen in on her phone calls, that you trust her to spend time with her friends without concern that she may do something ‘wrong.’ When we assume the best of our children that’s usually what we get.
Do you engage positively in a physical way with your child? All children need lots of hugs and affection, regardless of their age. And they need to know that you respect their physical space and place a high value on the time spent cuddling because it benefits you too. There is no greater love than the love between child and parent. Enjoy it and show your child that you enjoy it. Our children are our soul mates, after all. We are connected to them by the most powerful bond. We owe it to ourselves and them to celebrate every minute of this sacred relationship.
Do you allow your child to live her own life, make her own decisions and encourage her aspirations for the future? To attempt to take over her life may seem like protection but is a violation and completely non protective. A child cannot grow into a healthy adult in control of her life if she is constantly shown that she is incapable of doing so. Those with eating disorders feel highly dependent on others. They don’t want to be and the eating disorder helps to deceive them into believing that they are not. But they truly feel that they cannot make the right decisions, that there is always someone more qualified to do so, and that is usually the parent. There is only one ever one reason for that – it is because the parent has allowed them to.
Allow your child to make as many choices as possible that affect her life, and your lives as a family. Let her choose how she dresses, her friends, her hobbies…our role as parent is to guide, never to take over the decision making. Talk to her about family decisions and allow her to be a part of what goes on. If you’re thinking of redecorating the house, consult her. Thinking of moving? Discuss with her and truly care about her opinions and feelings. When children feel that their opinions and feelings are disregarded they naturally feel belittled and worthless.
Responsibilities are crucial to children. We all need to learn that we give and receive on an equal basis and that we are all essential parts of the world around us. I don’t believe in giving children chores to do and paying them. It just doesn’t feel right. Much more natural and healthy is to muck in together as a family just because it has to be done and it’s only fair that we all help. Then we deserve the fun time – and we know we do because we’ve earned it. Having an animal or two to look after is a great way to gain a strong sense of responsibility, as is gardening, helping with siblings, caring for old relatives…but it all needs to be given in a spirit of lightness and fun..not as a punishment or part of some strict regime.
Make sure that your child knows that your first concerns are her safety and well being. If you forbid a certain activity because you feel it is dangerous, tell her that, don’t just say no with no explanation. That just leads to the child feeling out of control.
Ultimately, parents need to respect their children’s boundaries. We must treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves. We need to treat ourselves well because they will copy us and parents who treat themselves in a caring, considerate way, do so also with their children. Don’t be harsh on yourself. Life is a journey and without making mistakes we cannot learn.