Parents of children with eating disorders often feel desperate, anxious and frustrated. Trapped between not pushing their child away and saving their life, parents can struggle with knowing how to juggle being supportive and coping with their own fears.
Natasha (name changed to protect her identity) spoke to us about her experience of supporting her teen daughter’s anorexia struggle.
Identifying the problem
‘It was Christmas, I remember that very distinctly,’ she remembers. ‘Emily was beginning to drink a lot of water. We had family celebrations and she wasn’t eating and making excuses that she wasn’t hungry. I saw her in the bathroom one day and thought she had got really thin. But it took a third party to say to me that they thought she had a problem. It suddenly all started falling into place. I felt really bad that I hadn’t recognised that myself and hadn’t seen it. I think when you’re really close to someone, often you don’t notice.’
Natasha’s inability to recognise her daughter’s eating disorder is a common issue amongst parents. Sufferers of eating disorders often hide their behaviours- whether that be avoiding food, vomiting or even lying. It can therefore be tricky for parents to know and spot the signs.
A mother’s struggle
It can also be difficult to know how to handle a child’s eating disorder, considering a mother’s intuitive instinct to help their child survive by making them eat isn’t a route to recovery.
‘I did it completely wrongly,’ explains Natasha. ‘I desperately tried to feed her which is only a mother’ s instinct, I guess. I was getting cross. I was saying ‘you’ve got to eat’. I was raising my voice, and I wasn’t understanding. I didn’t understand anorexia. I didn’t understand mental health. I was so in the dark with it all, I was flailing around, and I didn’t know what to do about it. It was only when I started consulting people that I began to piece it together and know how to deal with it better.’
Steps to recovery
The first step Natasha took was to find a therapist for Emily. However, finding the right person proved a challenge.
‘Counsellor number 1 was completely the wrong sort of person for her,’ she says. ‘It made me realise that I needed to work quite hard to find the right person for her to engage and feel comfortable enough to open up with.’
The next counsellor also didn’t offer the right approach for Emily. Thankfully, the final therapist they tried was a success. ‘It was such a relief to find the right person for her, to start making a difference and getting well again,’ says Natasha.
What parents go through
With an uncertain, worrying future laying ahead for their children’s eating disorder, parents often suffer distress and a feeling of immense helplessness.
‘I felt desperate. I felt uninformed. I struggled desperately. I didn’t know how to cope with it at all,’ explains Natasha. ‘A friend of a friend suggested a book, and I started reading it and realised I’d been doing it all wrong. I needed to change the way I was talking to Emily. I needed to swim along with her- swimming along like a dolphin- trying to guide her and be with her, and not fight against it. So it was very much an education for me in how to deal with her.’
The impact on the parent-child relationship
An eating disorder can also drive a wedge through even the most solid of parent/ child bonds. With the child’s eating disorder taking over their lives and instilling dangerous habits, parents can experience frustration and fear. Tensions may boil over and cause difficulties in the family home.
‘It got to the stage where we were struggling as a mother and daughter,’ Natasha says. ‘Emily needed time out and I needed some time out as well. She went and lived with my sister for a couple of weeks which gave us both some space to reset. I was waiting for Emily to say I want to come home now, which she did. Those first few weeks were very hard and strained.’
Recovery and a bright, hopeful future
Thankfully, Emily began to find helpful coping mechanisms through counselling, and an understanding of how to move forward. She is now at university and doing well.
‘She is so much better,’ smiles Natasha. ‘She still worries about how she appears to other people. Only yesterday she sent me a photo of her cheerleading at university- she needs to hear that she’s beautiful- which she is. I think it’s important in the process to hear that she looks good. I will always worry about her and keep an eye on her. Overall, she is thriving and she is working really hard at university. She has a very positive future ahead of her.
‘Still deep down there’s still that feeling of thank God she’s alright. She’s a little star and we are very lucky to have her well. It could have been very different.’
If you need help and support, please visit our online Disordered Eating Toolkit. A free resource for parents and carers who may have noticed symptoms of disordered eating in their child.