The 6 most common mistakes people make when trying to help someone with an eating disorder
Even though I truly love being a therapist, one thing about my job that is very difficult is receiving the weekly calls from parents and loved ones of people with eating disorders who ask the same heart-breaking question: “I know my child (wife, sister, brother, mother, or friend) has an eating disorder, but when I beg them to get counseling or see a doctor, they refuse and deny they even have a problem. What can I do to get them help?”
One of the biggest misconceptions about parents of people with eating disorders are that they are controlling and cold, and one of the primary causes of the child’s eating disordered behavior. In my twenty years of helping families combat eating disorders, I have found that in the majority of cases THIS IS NOT TRUE.
In fact, the opposite is often the case… most parents and loved ones of people with eating disorders are extremely caring, but worried sick, paralyzed about what to do to help. They often feel they have tried everything, and would do anything to help the one they love recover, if only they knew what would work.
An eating disorder will take over the personality of the one you love. Although it is, at its root, a powerful coping mechanism, it can destroy your loved ones quality of life or even take their life. It is excruciating for family and friends who are aware of the problem to feel so helpless to stop this destruction. Many loved ones watch the progression of the eating disorder in horror, afraid to make it worse, and at a loss as to what kind of help will work. Does this sound like you?
In this article, I am going to post a list the common mistakes I see parents and loved ones with eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, exercise purging and/or compulsive overeating) make over and over again. These mistakes are made with the desire to help and shield their loved one from emotional pain, but unfortunately that is often exactly the unintended result.
MISTAKE #1: Not seeking treatment for the eating disorder right away. I cannot state this often enough… especially if your child is under 18, DO NOT wait and hope the eating disorder will get better on its own with time. Once someone with an eating disorder is a legal adult, the tools you can leverage as a parent go down exponentially. I’ve seen adult children cut off contact with their parents, move to other states, and refuse to keep doctor appointments once they turn 18 in order to stay in their eating disordered behavior. The time to act is now.
MISTAKE #2: Sending your child to college when they have an eating disorder out of fear they’ll lose an opportunity. This may be difficult to hear, but DO NOT send your child to college if you know they have an eating disorder. Colleges are very understanding about helping students pursue health so that they can be truly successful at school. College is a huge stressor to young people who have eating disorders, and will exacerbate the problem, not make it better. It is much wiser to defer college for a semester or a year and send your child mentally and physically prepared once they have received quality treatment.
MISTAKE #3: Getting caught in ongoing arguments with your loved one around the symptoms of the eating disorder: i.e. trying to rationalize with them that they are not fat, that their clothes are not too big, or that they need to consume more calories or a larger variety of food. You cannot win an argument with the eating disorder by being rational. It will just create distance between you and your loved one, and exhaust the both of you.
MISTAKE #4: Not setting limits with your child or loved one out of fear you will make the eating disorder worse. Your loved one NEEDS limits and boundaries more than ever in order to recover from her illness; in fact, one of the most powerful methods to force a child/loved one into treatment is to set firm limits about what she will or will not be allowed to do based on her poor health.
MISTAKE #5: Allowing an athlete to continue in a sport that puts his body in danger. If you have the power, DO NOT allow an athlete to continue in a sport when he’s not receiving proper nutrition, or engaging in dangerous behaviors such as purging and taking laxatives or diet pills. Parents often do not want to remove a sport because it’s a positive influence, and the child often begs to be allowed to continue. You can keep the message positive: “We want you to participate in your sport, and as soon as you consent to treatment and reach a healthy weight and let go of your eating disordered behaviors, you can go right back stronger than ever.” I have seen too many parents allow their children, out of fear of disappointing them or making them depressed, continue to participate in sports teams when they are not consuming enough calories to be safe participating.
MISTAKE #6: Allowing the person with the eating disorder to split family and friends and keep secrets. It is very common for a person in deep denial about an eating disorder to convince the people who love them to keep their secrets and protect them from conflict with others who are worried about the eating disorder. The arguments can be very convincing, ranging from “I’ve just been depressed, that’s why I haven’t been eating”, to “I have stomach problems, which is why I can’t keep food down right now”, to “Our business is private and I can’t handle everyone meddling in my life. Please keep them away from me.” Your desire to is protect the one you love, but in this case you may just be enabling the eating disordered behaviors.
If you recognize yourself in these mistakes, please do not despair. I am not listing them to make you feel ashamed or like a failure. These are common mistakes that are made out of love and caring and a lack of knowledge and support about how to successfully combat a dangerous eating disorder. Sometimes you have to know what to STOP doing in order to move forward and discover what truly works. Luckily, there are several powerful and effective tactics that, if used properly and with guidance from a trained professional, can lead your loved one to break through the denial and finally seek treatment.
Please know I also offer emergency coaching for parents and loved ones to help you create a powerful plan of actions specific to your family’s individual circumstances. You don’t have to go it alone – and you don’t have to repeat the mistakes others have made, even out of love. Just call me at 904-737-3232 or fill out an online appointment request and I will be in touch right away to set up an emergency parent appointment with you.
Have faith and courage. With the right information and support, your loved one can recover.