A Parental Call to Action
By Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW
Author of When Your Child
Has an Eating Disorder
the inception of eating disorder treatment, parents have traditionally
borne the brunt of blame and guilt for causing life threatening anorexia
and bulimia in their child, a misguided belief resulting in misguided
treatment protocols that have excluded parents from participating in the
healing process. It is time for parents to accept the recognition they
deserve for the positive role they can, and should, play in affecting
successful recovery outcomes in their child. When given a voice and a
forum as agents of change, knowledgeable parents can become the “magic
bullet” enhancing an effective, timely, and lasting recovery in their
child with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are relational diseases. They show up within the
context of daily living, side by side with family and loved ones, at
kitchen tables and in family bathrooms…and, by the way, all too rarely
in the doctor’s office. Recovery from these diseases happens at home as
well, under their parent’s noses and before their eyes. Think about
it…Patients average 45 minutes per week face-to-face with health
professionals, but spend “24/7” living out their lives alongside loved
ones. Though the eating disorder shows up in the individual, their most
effective solutions are found within the family system. It is for family
members to pick up the gauntlet of opportunity for involvement in their
child’s or spouse’s cure, and to optimize it.
Though not responsible for causing these diseases, parents and siblings
enjoy the potential to become primary forces in healing and/or
preventing them. With eating disorders, the stakes are high; if not part
of the solution, family members risk becoming part of the problem.
Family members who provide reality-based, proactive and loving human
connections through an authentic, courageous and creative use of
themselves provide invaluable role-modeling for the patient in recovery
who seeks to learn to eat healthfully and solve problems effectively.
The time is now for parents of eating disordered children to become
apprised of what they have been doing RIGHT… to learn what they already
know, so that they can know what they need to learn. Too many parents
have forgotten what it takes to do what only they do best…to care for
their child, purposefully and proactively. They need to be reminded.
When their child is sick and unable to care for herself, parents need to
take charge of the situation until such time as the child becomes
capable of resuming self-regulation. Though the nature and quality of
the parent/child connection needs to change through the years to
accommodate the growing child’s increased capacity for autonomy, the
parental presence in a child’s life must remain a constant.
Parents need no instruction about how to respond when their child has
cancer or diabetes; interestingly, they tend to lose their emotional
balance, self-confidence, and faith in their instincts when confronting
the adolescent life stage, eating disorders, their own personal issues
and capacities regarding healthy eating, exercise, weight management,
and in the search for the best professional team.
Parents must be prepared to resist the misguided advice of health
professionals who encourage them to “back off” from their child’s eating
problems so as not to jeopardize the child’s budding independence or
capacity to separate from family ties. Through the process of seeking
and finding the best health care professionals and the child who has, in
essence, been lost to them, parents will also need to discover and
encounter themselves and their own attitudes and values… both as parents
and as people. Self-advocacy is a prerequisite for parents to become
effective advocates for the child, the treatment team, the recovery
process, and the overall quality of the parent/child relationship.
The parent’s most critical tool is the gentle and familiar art of active
and purposeful listening. Through sensitive listening, parents need to
Themselves… their own values, attitudes, and biases about food and
Their child…helping the child listen to and better hear herself or
Their child’s health professionals… discovering whether the
professional is truly listening to them. The “right fit” for the
child will feel like a comfortable fit for the parent. The smart
health professional will understand that the quality of the
parent/child connection will be the best insurance of a timely
recovery and the best hedge against relapse.
Through listening, parents also need to hear:
The unique and counterintuitive nature of recovery… comprehending
and interpreting it to the child, inspiring reassurance, motivation
and perseverance throughout a typically extended and challenging
informed consumers, it is for parents to recognize their inherent rights
as individuals, parents and partners in the treatment team, to dare to
have expectations, to make appropriate demands of professionals and
their child through limit-setting, and to be steadfast in seeing to it
that their own, and their family’s needs are being met.
Parental activism is what it takes to insure and facilitate the child’s
healing. Eating disorders never stand still; they are either getting
better or getting worse. Matching the nature and demands of these
disorders, parents, like therapists, must seek movement in recovery that
is intentional, directed, and tracked. It is this systematic tracking
and response to the typically unpredictable and counterintuitive
recovery dynamic that yields the most significant learning and healing.
With eating disorders, parental love needs to become parental action.