My Personal Advice to Parents with a Loved One with an Eating Disorder
By Megan Hodge, Fort Bend Christian Academy Class of 2010
I wrote this article about a week ago when my mom asked me for advice to tell parents who came to her concerned about their daughter's eating habits. Because this happens more often than I would like to admit, I decided I need to share this advice with parents.
My name is Megan Hodge, and I struggled with Anorexia Nervosa when I was 11 years old. I was hospitalized at Texas Children’s Hospital for eight weeks and received outpatient therapy for one year after. I was bitter, angry, and frustrated. I was treated like an eating disorder rather than a person, and I felt the stigma associated with having an eating disorder. My family did not know what to do to help, so I am giving advice from my perspective as someone who had to learn the hard way.
I developed bulimia, which became significantly worse during my freshman year of college. This lead to having to withdraw for a semester from Texas A&M, but I did not know how to tell my family I desperately needed help. Finally, in the summer of 2013, I sought help at the Walker Wellness Clinic in Dallas, Texas. I learned how to have a voice, how to live, and how to develop healthy strategies for dealing with stress, anxiety, and the temptation to binge and purge.
My life is no longer consumed with food, eating, or when to plan my next binge/purge. I am by no means perfect, and I have times where I wonder if I forgot everything I learned. But I push on knowing I learn valuable information from every setback. And the times where I struggle, I see what I can do differently next time. I am finally living, which is a joy I hope to spread to everyone and anyone who is struggling with mental illness or an eating disorder. I am no longer surviving, but I am thriving as an individual. I have my life back, and I could not be more thankful to God for that immense blessing. If you need further information, go to Walker Wellness Clinic to read articles about eating disorders and what you can do for a loved one or friend who is struggling.
“My mission in life is not to merely survive, but to thrive;
and to do so with some passion, some compassion,
some humor, and some style." - Maya Angelou
Note: This is a list of my advice and suggestions, not rules you have to follow. Only you as a parent or loved one know what is best for you. I am by no means a professional; I am just speaking from my personal experience. This list is what I wished my parents knew and the kind of support I wish I could have communicated to them in the midst of my own eating disorders.
Do not be the food police.Doing things like telling your loved one to eat more, focusing on what they are eating or not eating, or forcing them to eat will harm your relationship, and they will not feel like home is a safe place with no judgment. Putting their eating habits at the forefront will only cause the individual to become even more focused on their food intake. It becomes a sort of mind game where if you make a comment on how little your loved one eats, they will feel like they succeeded that day. If you do not, your loved one will feel they ate too much that day. This can be difficult because it is easy to focus on someone’s eating habits since that is what is apparent. Your loved one’s lack of eating is just a symptom of a deeper pain. The focus should be to encourage them to talk openly with you. Let them know they can talk to you about anything. Make the home a safe place where the focus is on the deeper struggles - not the food.
Do find a dietician who teaches an end goal of intuitive eating.This will allow you to just be a loving supportive parent, friend or significant other. It is not your job to make sure your loved one is eating full meals. That is your loved one’s job and the job of a dietician to encourage and challenge their eating habits. Let the dietitian be the “bad guy” when it comes to food. It is vital that your loved one learns how to eat on their own without mom and dad telling them what they need to eat. Going to college (if your loved one is in high school), they will need to be independent and recognize what their body needs, and they need to learn on their own that only they can know what their body needs. That is why it is vital to have a dietitian guide them through the process of being in tune with their hunger and fullness cues. This is not your job as a parent or loved one to monitor. Your loved one’s relationship will be damaged with you if you try to tell them what their body needs…they will feel controlled and further use their eating habits to try to obtain even more control for themselves.
Do find a Licensed Professional Counselor to help your loved one through the deeper underlying pain they are experiencing.As I said earlier, your loved one’s eating habits are a symptom of a deeper pain they are experiencing. Seeing a LPC, Licensed Professional Counselor, can give them the tools they need as well as healthy coping skills to manage the pain they are experiencing and overcome the obstacles your loved one feels they cannot overcome. Over time, the eating symptoms will subside once they tackle the deeper issues and focus on how those issues affect the way they eat. It is so extremely important to catch eating disorder symptoms early because relapses are less likely.
Do not make comments about your loved one’s physical appearance in terms of how thin they are.
For someone with an eating disorder, hearing the words “You look so skinny/thin/etc.” is like hearing you aced a comprehensive final exam. There is an extreme high you feel, and it feels like the ultimate success. Instead, tell your loved one the things you love about their personality, abilities, and characteristics. Ask your loved one what they love about themselves. Take the focus away from eating and their physical appearance, and promote a different focus to who they are as a person. Teach them the value of loving themselves as a person not based on their appearance. That can be especially hard if you see your loved one getting thinner and thinner, but this is why it is so vital to find a dietitian and LPC sooner rather than later.
Do trust the professionals, and do not rush the process.Overcoming struggles with eating can be a long, slow, painful process. It will require a great deal of patience, understanding, and unconditional love. As someone being on the side of experiencing an eating disorder, I was frustrated on a daily basis in the midst of recovery. I faced so many ups and downs, good days and bad days, and at times questioned why I wanted or needed to recover in the first place. Ultimately, I decided I was tired of merely surviving, and I wanted to start truly living. Understand that through this process, your loved one may have times where they need space to figure things out. Do not poke and prod. If your loved one sets boundaries, respect them and try your best not to push them. This is a learning process between you and your loved one as they move through this complex, difficult young adult phase of their life, transitioning between dependence and independence, and making their own choices. Your loved one is learning to be an independent young woman or man, and it is more than likely their LPC will help them go through the process of figuring out what they need to do for themselves. I had a friend who was going through the same treatment I was, and her parents grew impatient with the time it was taking for her to overcome her eating disorder. So, her parents told her she needed to suck it up, get over it, and no longer do any more treatment even though she desperately wanted and needed to stay longer.
- Disordered eating is still something that needs to be addressed with professionals. Your loved one may not look like they have an eating disorder, but their eating habits seem sporadic, strange, and specific. Those habits easily turn into full-blown eating disorders at a quick rate.
- Even though someone may be snacking on junk food all the time (especially if they used to eat full meals), this can still be a sign of potential eating disorder behaviors. Snacking is a way to satisfy the initial pangs of hunger, while still being able to feel empty. That empty feeling is addictive. Soon, you become scared of feeling full, and being satisfied after eating feels wrong. Feeling full causes guilt and disappointment in oneself, while feeling empty is empowering to someone with an eating disorder.
- I met a young woman who solely ate junk food and desserts. She mainly snacked all the time without feeling full, and she got down to a dangerously low weight. She was diagnosed with anorexia, and she had to learn how to eat full meals again. Just because someone does not have the “typical” eating habits of someone with anorexia (eating salad, healthy foods, minimal portions), does not mean you should not be concerned. If you feel something is off or wrong, trust your feelings. Do not sit on it and wait to see what happens. This is where many families end up in panic mode and have no idea what to do for their loved one because it feels like you are out of time to find help.
- You will get through this! It is amazing how much relief you will feel once someone else is helping guide you through this. Be prepared for possible family therapy sessions. These will be a chance for you to voice concerns and get feedback from your loved one and the therapy team in a safe environment.
- Something you may consider is having couples therapy or individual therapy so you can have space to voice concerns, how y’all are coping with everything your loved one is going through, and how y’all are doing as individuals, a family, and as a couple. This can be a space to talk about frustrations and get advice on how to continue to support each other through this process. It is important to not have the loved one with the eating disorder to be the sole focus of everything you do. This can be damaging for everyone in the family. Have time for you, and have time for fun, happiness, and togetherness that is not focused on the loved one with the eating disorder. This is not avoiding the situation (especially if your loved one is getting professional help), it is promoting a healthy environment for everyone to feel safe and loved. It is learning to still live and have a fulfilling life in the midst of hardships.
- Do not blame yourselves for what is happening with your loved one. There are so many causes for eating disorders including off kilter chemicals in the brain. There is no single root cause for eating disorders but many that can contribute to the onset. If you get caught up in self-blame, this will harm your relationship with everyone in the family. With that, if there is something that comes up that was hurtful, own up to it, and be willing to admit your actions may have caused hurt. This can be crucial for the healing process. You are not a bad person; you are human. Focus on what you can do to move forward and truly move forward with love, support, and encouragement for everyone in the family as you go through this process. Make sure to include special time with the other children in your family to feel included, loved, and encouraged. Be sure to ask everyone in your family how they are handling everything with the loved one and how the eating disorder is affecting them. This can be confusing, concerning, and extremely hard on the rest of the family as well. Encourage siblings to be open and let them know you deeply care for them.
- Things will get better. Y’all are strong, and your loved one is extremely strong.
Because eating disorders are complex, it is important to tackle them with various forms of therapy and a comprehensive treatment team. The treatment I received included group therapy, meal therapy, cooking therapy, individual therapy, nutrition therapy, pharmacotherapy, and adjunct therapy.
Thank you, Megan, for sharing your perspective on a topic that is often difficult to discuss! This strong and determined young woman, a 2010 Fort Bend Christian Academy alumna, graduated with honors from Texas A&M University on May 15, 2015. She is currently an Author and Creative Director at Homemade Everyday in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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