What every parent/carer needs to know

When a person you love is diagnosed with an eating disorder or appears to have developed disordered eating, it’s important to act quickly.  Eating disorders are serious, complex and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses that have profound damaging and debilitating impacts upon a person’s life.  Early intervention is potentially life-saving.  Eating disorders are no fault of parents, carers or the individual themselves.  However parents and carers are vital in supporting their loved ones to recovery. 

Eating disorders often become noticeable when outward physical changes or concerns about weight, shape and size are at the forefront of your loved one’s day to day life. 

Despite this, behavioural and emotional changes may surface long before any physical changes do. This includes disordered food or exercise behaviours, social withdrawal, a change in mood, irritability or anxiety. Recognising these subtle changes may prevent them from continuing months before they are addressed. 

There are over 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder in any given year, and seeking help early can help your loved one recover in a shorter duration of time. 

The more time your loved one spends alone within their eating disorder mindset, the greater chance there is of it strengthening its hold. 

You know your loved one. 

Trust your intuition. 

If you feel something is off; it probably is. 

The eating disorder is not your child.

It is valid to feel as if you have lost the child you once knew. Eating disorders submerge our loved one in fear, mistrust and pain. Sometimes it may feel as if your child is unreachable. 

You can rest assured, your child is still there. They have never left and they need your love and support now more than ever. 

Living inside an eating disorder everyday is terrifying, isolating and overwhelming. 

Often, the first key to your loved one reconnecting with themselves again is when they feel connection, love and trust with the people they love most. 

Your loved one isn’t “choosing” to be this way.

Eating disorders are not a choice. Your loved one didn’t choose to be sick.  They didn’t choose pain, suffering and self-destructive behaviour patterns.  For those experiencing an eating disorder it is as frightening for you as it is for them.  Imagine being trapped within your own mind…. a mind that is trying to destroy you and take your life away? It feels terrifying. 

With your love and kindness, and acknowledgement that they didn’t choose to be this way, your loved one will feel heard and validated.

Eradicate any guilt and shame. 

Eating disorders thrive on shaming the person suffering. When addressing your concerns about your loved one’s behaviours, it is essential this is done in a non-judgmental, kind, gentle and loving way. 

Remind them that you love them no matter what. You are not going anywhere. You can see they are in pain. You will hold space for them whilst they navigate their world. 

Providing a safe place for your loved one to speak could be the difference between an openness to accepting support and treatment; versus delving deeper into their eating disorder. 

Don’t label your child as the black sheep (or problem child) of the family 

Having an eating disorder already feels like treading water, so confirmation that they are a burden on the family can be too much to bear for your loved one, and the shame may entrench them deeper into their eating disorder. 

Instead, try and remember to put your child’s needs at the forefront, knowing that they are battling a serious, life threatening mental illness. Recognise that your loved one is fighting for their life every day, and if your loved one feels blame this will only exacerbate their shame and hinder their healing.  

Just as an eating disorder feels like a blindside to family and friends, it also is unexpected and overwhelming for the person who is suffering.

Provide a strong foundation of unconditional support. 

Understandably, it is extremely difficult to navigate the grief and loss we feel as parents and carers when our loved one has been overtaken by an eating disorder.  Our loved ones often feel emotions very deeply, therefore the pain they are in can be perceived by our unwell person as their fault or a burden they have placed on the family. 

Gently assure your loved one that this is not the case. Remind them that you will get through these battles together and they are not alone. 

Without this strong foundation of support from family and friends, the message our loved ones may receive is that they are not loved, deserving, acceptable or worthy.

The road to recovery will never be an overnight achievement, but with love, nurture, compassion, understanding, consistency and acceptance, our loved ones will slowly gain the confidence to step into a full and meaningful life.  

There is hope. 

Every day people make the brave decision to begin their recovery journey. 

For someone, today will be the last time they use disordered destructive eating disorder behaviours to cope with life. 

For someone, today will be the last day they intentionally skip a meal as a means of punishment or self-sabotage. 

For someone, today will be the last day they abuse laxatives. 

For someone, today will be the last day they self-induce vomiting. 

For someone, today will be the last day they participate in using exercise as punishment.

Finding hope in moments of despair may seem like an impossible feat. Reach out for support, talk to people who are going through or have been through a similar journey. 

Recovery is possible. A full life free from an eating disorder is possible.

Your love and support makes a world of difference to your loved one experiencing an eating disorder.