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Over 35 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice
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Eating Disorder Specialist

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Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
Telephone 847-432-1795
Fax: 847-266-9233
Highland Park, Illinois 60035
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NEDA Conference Sees Parents as Agents for Change
By Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP

On October 24 and 25 2003, the National Eating Disorders Organization (NEDA) sponsored their annual conference, “Building Connections and Mobilizing Families, Educators, Advocates and Professionals.” This meeting was groundbreaking in being the first to bring parents and families together with eating disorder professionals and scientific researchers. Since the inception of eating disorder treatment, parents have traditionally borne the brunt of blame and guilt for causing these life threatening diseases in their child, a belief resulting in misguided treatment protocols that have excluded parents from participating in the healing process. NEDA brought the treatment field to a new level of efficacy by offering parents the unprecedented recognition they deserve for the positive role they can, and should, play in affecting successful recovery outcomes in their child. Having been given a voice and a forum as agents of change, parents described their experience at the conference as being “empowering,” and “electrifying.”

In a special plenary session, researchers involved with a 65 million dollar research project (yet to be published) concluded that the factor most significant in the onset of childhood eating disorders is genetic… not parenting, scientifically negating the widely accepted theory that parents are the cause of their child’s problem, and that parental involvement in their child’s recovery is, by its very nature, intrusive and harmful.

In my professional experience over these past three decades in treating individuals and families with eating disorders, I have found knowledgeable parenting to be the “magic bullet” enhancing effective, timely, and lasting recoveries in children. In a workshop entitled “Supporting Your Loved One: Coping and Resources,” I encouraged parents to understand how self-advocacy is a prerequisite to parents becoming effective advocates for the child, the treatment team, the recovery process, and the overall quality of the parent/child relationship.

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 through limit-setting
  • And to be steadfast in seeing to it that their own, and their family’s needs are met. 

Just as patient activism has become a means for sustaining eating disorder recovery, (preventing relapse), 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 (healing). With eating disorders, parental love needs to become an action. 

The most critical resource for parents is themselves; their most critical tool, the gentle and familiar art of listening…actively and purposefully, to:

  • Themselves; to their own values, attitudes, and biases about food and weight management, and to the courage it takes to maintain a parental presence throughout the child’s recovery process
  • Their child; to help the child listen to and better hear herself.
  • Their child’s health professionals; to discover whether the professional is truly listening to them.
  • The unique and counterintuitive nature of recovery; to comprehend and interpret it to the child, inspiring reassurance, motivation and perseverance throughout an extended and challenging process.

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 regarding eating, exercise, and weight management, and the search for the best professional team. 

“The “right fit” for your child will feel like a comfortable fit for you. Your child’s health professionals will understand that the quality of your connection with your child will be the best insurance of a timely recovery and the best hedge against relapse. By hearing and addressing your concerns, supporting your strengths and facilitating your partnership in the treatment team, professionals advocating for parents will role model effective parental advocacy for the recovering child.”

Though the eating disorder shows up in the child, their most effective solutions are found within the family system. The time is now for parents to become apprised of what they have been doing RIGHT… to learn what they already know, and to know what more they need to learn. Parents have forgotten what it takes to do what they do best…to care for their child, purposefully and proactively. They need to be reminded. Recovery from these diseases happens at home, under their parent’s noses and before their eyes…not in the doctor’s offices. Through the process of seeking and finding the best health care professionals, parents also seek and find themselves, as well as the precious child who has been lost to them.

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