From Frozen to Fantastic: Ten Tips for Tackling a Child’s Eating Disorder as a Family

Eating disorders are bio-psycho-social illnesses. They are also very treatable. With the right treatment, in appropriate doses, at appropriate times, and for an appropriate length of time, they are even curable.

But medical limitations, patient reluctance, or even media messages are not the primary deterrent to recovery.

The number one reason patients do not get better faster is a plain and simple deficit of information.

In my more than two decades of treating and supporting both eating disordered patients and their loved ones, I have learned a great deal about the type of information that is needed to effectively mobilize a family around a child who is suffering. This article addresses ten key learnings that can take your family from frozen to fantastic in how you collectively band together to combat a child’s life threatening illness.

The first key learning is – do not blame yourself. And do not blame your child. It is nobody’s fault when the biologically-based illness that is an eating disorder arises, in the same way that it is nobody’s fault when a child develops leukemia or autism, or an adult woman develops endometriosis. What is needed and effective is not blame, but rather action in the form of appropriate professional care and informed family and community support.

The second key learning is – an eating disorder is a bio-psycho-social illness with genetic links. Eating disorders have their underpinnings in a biological brain imbalance that results in the affected individual processing the presence of nutrients differently than someone without that imbalance would. As the National Eating Disorders Association states, “biology loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”  In the thin-obsessed culture we live in today, there is a clear biological reason why not every exposed individual develops a diagnosable eating disorder. Not everyone is at risk, because not everyone carries the genetic linkages that predispose an individual to develop an eating disorder. Those who develop an eating disorder are life-threateningly ill and require prompt and comprehensive care.

The third key learning is – do not panic. Instead, learn all you can.  Getting educated by reading high quality books and visiting nonprofit and medical websites that contain accurate information about eating disorders will help you and your family understand what you are dealing with, in the same way that a diagnosis of breast or prostate cancer might prompt the affected individual and their family to carefully review current treatments, options, success rates, and risks involved. In the case of an adolescent who is affected, the responsibility clearly rests with the parents to do the homework necessary to pick the best course of care. The more you are able to learn about what to expect, the timeline involved in recovery, what works better in which kinds of cases, and who in your area has expertise in treating eating disorders, the less energy you will waste in fear, indecision, self doubt, and frustration with the recovery process.

The fourth key learning is – get help. Do not attempt to self-diagnose or self-treat an ill child or loved one. Eating disorders are the most lethal of all psychiatric-based diseases. They are treatable and even curable – with appropriate professional care. For adolescents in particular, learn as much as you can about newer cutting edge protocols such as Family Based (Maudsley) Method (FBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), both of which have shown excellent results in improving symptoms and returning the affected individual to a healthy state.

The fifth key learning is – don’t forget about your own self-care needs. Supporting your child will take an incredible amount of time and energy. There will be times when you will feel hopeless, exhausted, frustrated, confused. To avoid burning out during each leg of the recovery process, remember that you can accept support and you deserve support . You are working as hard as your child, albeit from a different perspective, and you need to apply good self-care or you will not have the stamina you need to see the recovery process through to its successful conclusion. Seek out supportive groups online or in your area – for example, FEAST-ED.org is an excellent parent support site that offers parent-to-parent mentoring via an online forum called “Around the Dinner Table.”

The sixth key learning is – shame has no place in recovery from any illness, including an eating disorder. We have come a long way from the “don’t ask – don’t tell” generation our parents and grandparents labored under. We know so much more now about what causes psychiatric illness and how to help affected individuals and their loved ones navigate the recovery process. Whether it is cancer, loss, unemployment, divorce, or another personal tragedy, no one is a stranger to the need to recover from life’s unexpected challenges. With your acceptance and validation of your child’s illness, you strengthen your child and your entire family to own the challenge ahead as a learning process and a chance to grow stronger. Don’t let shame rob your child and your family of that energizing and motivating gift.

The seventh key learning is – remember that your child and your child’s illness are not one and the same. Your child is a unique, wonderful individual with endless promise and potential. Your child’s illness is something that he or she struggles with that requires appropriate treatment to overcome. They are two different things. It is important to start immediately to emotionally separate out who your child is from what your child is struggling with. Love the child, treat the disorder – they are not one and the same.

The eight key learning is –DO NOT WAIT.  An eating disorder will not suddenly get better or go away if ignored. Pretending the disorder is not there may cause the child to hide the symptoms out of shame or fear, but disappearance of symptoms is cause for increased rather than decreased concern. Act immediately the moment you see the first sign of symptoms. Research has shown that the sooner an eating disorder is intervened upon, the faster and shorter the recovery period will be.

The ninth key learning is – make sure the treatment you choose is evidence-based. What this means is that, with the wealth of options available today, it is easy to get confused about what is the best choice for your child. Go with where the evidence is. Interview medical professionals and ask for success rates. Contact nonprofit and professional organizations and ask to read recent medical journal and research reports concerning treatment protocols you are interested in pursuing.  Talk with other families about what worked for them. Ask medical professionals for references and call those references to find out what their experiences have been like. Most of all, seek a treatment protocol for your child that is well researched and shows consistent positive results. Treatment is expensive no matter what route you choose, so go for what works.

The tenth key learning is – never discount the transformative power of unconditional love. As the disease takes hold, you may find yourself thinking, “Is this my child?” The answer is “No.” The voice of the disorder at work within your child’s brain may create a different relational dynamic for awhile, as her relationship with food and fear changes and then changes again throughout each phase of the recovery process. Fear is a powerful agent, and may produce bouts of rebellion, resistance, even rage. But underneath any show of resistance, bravado, or anger is a frightened child who is doing her best to understand what is happening and figure out what to do about it. It is no different than the brain changes a bout of chemotherapy or radiation might cause – it is temporary, and reversible with application of proper nutrient levels that produce brain re-balancing with a corresponding return of emotional stability. Love your child, treat the disease, fight it together as a family.

At Southlake Counseling, we have more than two decades of expertise in treating adolescents and families affected by eating disorders. Our specializations include Family Based (Maudsley) Training (FBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Our founder and staff received training directly from Dr. Nancy Zucker, the director of the Duke University Eating Disorders Program, which incorporates both FBT and DBT protocols in their highly successful family-based treatment program. Our clinical director has also received training directly from Dr. Locke and Dr. Le Grange, authors of Helping your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder. At Southlake Counseling, we have seen firsthand how families that recover together grow closer and stronger together. We encourage you to reach out for help and experience the difference expert, compassionate professional care can make in your family’s life. Visit us today at www.southlakecounseling.com to learn more.

Be Well,

Kimberly

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