Dear Parent,You’ve just found out your child has been purging, starving, stuffing, or some combination. You’re scared for their life, or maybe you’re angry. You’re wondering how they are going to get better and if they are going to get better. You may even be wondering if it’s your fault.
It is normal to wonder these things. Overcoming an eating disorder is neither quick nor easy, but complete recovery is possible, especially when the client gets treatment and the family is involved. If you are reading these words, you are already helping your child.
As many different feelings as you may be having, it is crucial that you let love and acceptance rule over blame - not acceptance of the eating disorder, but of the people involved in this situation. The eating disorder feeds on blame. In the children’s book “Le Petit Prince”, the prince meets a drunkard and asks him why he drinks. The drunkard replies, “I drink because I am ashamed.” “Why are you ashamed?” asks the prince. “Because I drink.” It’s the same with an eating disorder. The feeling of being at fault triggers the machinery of the eating disorder. One thing you can do right away to help your child, therefore, is to eliminate blame.
This means letting love rule over finding fault with yourself, too. Your child will pick up on your self-recrimination and blame themself for it, like a bloodhound sniffing a rabbit. The best way you can help your child is to get support for yourself so you can be there for them. It’s likely that your child is holding an emotion that belongs to someone else in her psyche. The more you can claim your unconscious and deal with your emotions directly, the more freedom your child will have to work on what’s theirs, without it getting mixed up in what’s yours. Find a way to take responsibility for your part of the issues without blaming yourself. It takes many factors to create an eating disorder, such as:
• A huge influx of media images giving a crazy-making, contradictory message: “Eat!” and “Lose weight!” (Statistics show that a person watching the regular amount of TV will see three years of commercials by age 75).
• Boundary violations – emotional, physical, sexual – in the person’s life.
• An overblown, overweening inner critic.
Eating disorders cannot be traced to a single incident. Your child didn’t get an eating disorder because your ex-husband was a jerk or because you didn’t breastfeed. They arise over many years. That being said, it will help your child tremendously to find out how you may have contributed to the problem. Often there is something the parent didn't get that s/he needed and in turn cannot recognize the need in the child. (Alice Miller writes about this in The Drama of the Gifted Child). Find someone who can help you determine how your unconscious wounds may play a part.
I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is that you be kind and accepting of yourself along the way. The point is to take responsibility for what’s yours, but also to acknowledge who else needs to be held accountable for the existence of this disease – including your child. You have a wonderful opportunity here – to model for your child what it’s like to be truthful without being critical AND to go forward in your own healing. To see truth without criticism in the home is going to teach the child how to love themself, which is the key to recovery. This is where your own therapy can be extremely helpful. That person will help keep the inner critic out of your way, so you can work through whatever feelings are underneath.
Therapy can help you and your family put the past in the past and learn skills for dealing with the present. The goal is to mobilize everyone involved to enter a future in which your child does not need the eating disorder anymore, keeping the superego out of the way so real communication can take place. I offer consultation and therapy to parents and families of people with eating disorders.
Sheira Kahn, MFT