Starting eating disorder treatment can be scary for the individual affected—but it can also be a stressful time for parents. When your child experiences a negative food/body relationship, you may struggle to understand why. Their behaviors may seem perplexing and leave you feeling frustrated, afraid, and sad. The Emily Program understands that it’s difficult to watch someone you love struggle with an eating disorder. It’s also difficult to know how to comfort them.
What Will Happen When My Child Starts Treatment?
Eating disorder treatment is a new experience, and like all new things, it can be scary at first. Prior to starting treatment, your child’s eating disorder behaviors may increase due to the stress and fear of starting treatment and confronting the eating disorder. Your child may experience dread, anger, anxiety, or depression. They may also experience relief upon knowing that they are on the road to recovery. All of these feelings are normal.
For parents, it’s important to be aware and present in the days or weeks before treatment. Make sure to check in with your child about how they are feeling or if they could use any specific support. Reassure them that treatment is a good idea because it will help them to live their best life. Be vocal about your support and be present when they share with you.
Upon starting treatment, your child may experience anger, frustration, or fear. Treatment requires necessary changes. Meal plans are put in place, therapy occurs, and individuals are encouraged to form supportive relationships that challenge their fears. All of these new experiences and events can spark anxiety. On the positive side, the sense of comradery and community can also leave individuals feeling seen, acknowledged, supported, and like they are not alone.
How to Provide Comfort to Your Child in Treatment
The first step to providing care to your child is to try your best to understand what they are going through. While you will never be able to fully understand their experience, you can educate yourself on the illness. Eating disorders are complex, so they can be hard to understand on your own. To learn more about eating disorders, The Emily Program offers an ED 101 class, where people can learn about the illnesses and voice questions they may have.
Once you have taken the time to educate yourself on eating disorders, it’s important to be aware of what can be harmful during eating disorder treatment and recovery. We advise against the following:
- Talking about food or body. Food and body-based talk can be harmful during recovery. We advise against focusing or fixating on what your child eats or looks like during treatment and recovery. Comments like, “You are looking so much healthier now that you’ve put on a little weight” and “You ate all your food!” can be harmful to those in recovery. By focusing on what your children look like, you may exacerbate their appearance anxiety or increase their body-based thoughts. By focusing on how much or how little they are eating, you may add to the anxiety of mealtimes and recovery. Instead of these comments, we suggest focusing on what your child is doing well and how treatment and recovery will help them. Try statements like, “I’m glad we can spend time together during this meal” or “I’m proud of you.”
- Comparing. Avoid the comparison trap. You may find yourself comparing your child’s recovery to someone else’s or their progress to someone else’s. Keep in mind that everyone has a unique experience in treatment and will experience a unique recovery. Focus on your child, not those around them.
- Making assumptions. Most likely, there will be times during your child’s treatment that you feel like they are “better” or that they are doing a great job. It’s important not to place your feelings on your child. It’s more helpful to ask your child how they are doing before assuming. That way, you can connect with your child without any presumptions that may cloud the conversation.
Luckily, there are also several things you can do to provide comfort for your child in treatment! If you are unsure where to start, try one of the following:
- Get them settled into treatment. From residential to day programming to outpatient, treatment can be scary because it’s a new experience. If you are able, consider helping your child settle into their new schedule with treatment. You could drive them to appointments, visit them if they are in a residential setting, or send them to treatment with relaxing activities they can do in their free time (books, cards, puzzles, or coloring books).
- Ask what they need and want. Make sure to check in frequently with your child about their needs and wants during treatment. They may ask you to support them in specific ways, if so, make sure you put the effort in to abide by their wishes. Keep in mind that treatment is an essential step in eating disorder recovery. We always recommend listening to your child’s treatment team for their treatment plan.
- Work with your child’s treatment team. Make sure you work with your child’s treatment team. If they share a meal plan or treatment plan with you, it’s important that you are on board and not undermining their plan. If you aren’t sure about a plan, it’s okay to ask! Being on the same page is vital, that way, you can all work together to support your child and your child can receive a consistent message.
- Be there and listen. Living with an eating disorder is exhausting. Being in treatment is exhausting. It’s likely that your child is experiencing a wide range of emotions, too. By being present and acting as a listening ear, you can provide a safe space for your child to vent or express themselves. By having a safe space to go to, they will feel empowered and supported, making recovery a bit easier.
If your child is in treatment and you have questions, we recommend connecting with their treatment team. Recovery is possible. If you believe your child needs eating disorder treatment, the best thing you can do is get them to an eating disorder assessment or call The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977. From there, they will be recommended to a level of care and can start their road to recovery.