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Over 35 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice
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Eating Disorder Specialist

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A Parental Call to Action
By Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW
Author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

Since 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 hear:
  • Themselves… their own values, attitudes, and biases about food and weight management.
  • Their child…helping the child listen to and better hear herself or himself.
  • 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 process.

As 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.

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