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11 Ways Parents Can Support a Child Who's Struggling With an Eating Disorder

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Note: This is not professional advice, merely a list of tips that worked in my situation.

My situation is slightly different from most. My child has a two-pronged issue. 1. She finds it difficult to swallow, so eating is just not a pleasant experience for her. 2. She has major depressive disorder.

Mental Health

My daughters depression is a more common component of an eating disorder. The temptation to stop eating is not so much a temptation, as the absence of the human survival instinct. It is part of the general feeling of numbness that can come with deep depression. There are so many aspects to the psychology of eating disorders that I will definitely leave it there and leave it to the professionals (because I don’t have time or brain cells to go and get the required PhD to write with any kind of authority on this particular topic). I do know that there can be a huge cry for help, whether conscious or subconscious, in the act of not eating; it can also sometimes stem from the need to control something in one’s life when one feels like everything else is out of control. Yet for others, it can literally be a side effect of a physical or mental health issue, or medication.

The situation is not helped, of course, by society and media telling us that skinny is beautiful, in so many obvious and un-obvious ways, pretty much everywhere we look.

Here are the things that we did that worked to combat eating disorder in our child:

1. Address the Eating Issue Quickly

Don’t wait to see “if it will come right” — once an eating disorder takes hold, it can be impossible to shake.

2. Therapy

When I realized that my child was developing an eating disorder, I made an appointment with the therapist and I did nothing until I had sound, expert advice. I was very much aware that what I was dealing with was a potential minefield and by acting without the right information, I could cause more damage than good.

What follows is what we enacted from that therapy and what worked for us. But every situation is unique, so I would definitely advise speaking to a professional to get guidance if you need to manage a situation similar to this in your own life. Try to find someone who specializes in this field — a child or youth counselor is a good choice (Youthline in New Zealand is excellent for this kind of help).

3. Continue Therapy

One session won’t usually do it. Keep going back and exploring what it is that brought your child to this point — examine it, deal with it, make sure you have a sturdy management plan in place — not just to deal with the eating disorder but to deal with any underling issues. Otherwise, any other action you take is often just a band-aid.

4. Do Not Get Overly Emotional About Your Child’s Eating

It is an emotional thing. I know. But try to shut it down. Ranting, raving, crying and shouting at your child to: EAT! is not going to help. All it usually does is wind you up and shoot you off like a spring, stress your child when they’re already stressed beyond endurance and drive a wedge between you. What I think you do need to do is be matter of fact about it:

You will have a plan the therapist gave you.

You will follow the plan.

The End.

If you are worried about “What if they still don’t eat?” — this is something you should discuss with your therapist, perhaps on your own.

5. Teach the Realities of Anorexia

You may not be at this point, but it is important to know where the road leads to and that it’s definitely not a desired destination.

The face of anorexia is not the glamorous figures of celebrities.

It is often the systematic shutting down of the body. It is not having breasts, not getting your period and not being able to have children. It is heart defects. It is internal organ failure. It is, ultimately, death. Harsh truth, but it needs to be heard. The mood swings, hunger pains, mind fog and bodily fatigue are only the beginning of it.

6. Point Out to Your Child How Good They Feel When They Do Eat

A burst of energy, feeling better emotionally, thinking more clearly — these are all benefits of eating well.

7. Meal Plans

As part of our therapist managed plan, we sat down and wrote up a weekly meal plan, based on what our child liked eating, as well as what she needed to complete a well-rounded, nutritious diet. We agreed that this is what she would eat for the week. We signed a contract. Then she took part in the process of putting that meal plan into action.

8. Shopping

Our child came shopping with us and was allowed to put anything she liked in the trolley. We just wanted her to regain the love of food. To start off with, we didn’t worry too much about whether it was “junk” food or not, we just wanted it in her and for her to enjoy it.

Some really easy go-tos in the first stage are things like protein shakes (i.e Up and Go) and 2 Minute Noodles. They go down easy and sometimes that makes a difference.

9. Food Diary

We kept a food diary of everything that was eaten, so we could remind ourselves of what was enjoyed and also keep track of things like veg count and how often food was eaten (one of our child’s tricks is to make one meal stretch into another, i.e. breakfast becomes lunch).

10. Cooking Lessons

Whatever they’re enjoying, they can learn to make themselves — whether it’s scrambled eggs, pasta or muffins.

11. Try to Encourage Your Child to Become a Foodie

When your child enjoys one type of food, run with it. As an example, lot’s of kids love sushi these days — so, if this is the case, go and visit some authentic Japanese sushi restaurants, try different places and sample the varieties they offer. Get some books out of the library with different recipes and learn to make it yourselves. Encourage your child to take a class in cookingbakingcake decorating or whatever it is that they are enjoying. Encourage and support them to enjoy the experience and forge a healthy relationship with what goes into their body. Celebrate food.

Celebrate food first and celebrate healthy food second — the second being most parents challenge, so you are now heading back into the range of “normal” parental worry (and doesn’t that feel nice).

When things go wrong

Things will go wrong. There will be set backs. This is not a smooth course in a straight line. Keep checking in with the therapist. Go back to the menu plan (and the contract). Remind yourselves.

Take a step back and try again.

Follow this journey here.


Lead image via contributor

Originally published: July 25, 2018
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