Here’s What I Wish Parents Would Know To Say To A Child With An Eating Disorder

'Looking after a young person with an eating disorder can be a complete and utter minefield, but it is possible,' says Hope Virgo, Author and Founder of #DumpTheScales.

What to say to child with eating disorder

by Hope Virgo |
Updated on

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Wow, what a year it has been, and I can’t quite believe as I sit here and write this, reflecting on the last year, what so many people have been faced with. Something that has been clear in all of this, whilst I am a firm believer in trying to find some positive in the midst of the pandemic, is the number of people who are now struggling with an eating disorder. In fact, with lockdown creating the perfect storm for people with eating disorders, we are seeing the number of people struggling with an eating disorder increasing by at least 46%.

For parents and carers, it can feel like a minefield when it comes to supporting those with eating disorders but I found some of the below things helpful being said to me. But before I do, I wanted to emphasise a few things; listen and don’t jump to conclusions. Be mindful that we don’t want to be fixed; we often just want someone next to us, walking alongside us, offering support and listening. Please don’t assume you know why something has triggered us either, it has been a really hard year for so many reasons but someone’s eating disorder wasn’t necessarily caused by the pandemic.

Here are my suggestions for things I wish parents would know to say to their children, when struggling with an eating disorder

How is that meal making you feel? Eating disorders are really complicated illnesses, and we show that we are struggling through food behaviours - so giving us space around the food and mealtimes helps us to feel heard.

How are you feeling about recovery today? Framing things positively like this allows us to focus on the good, the bad and the harder bits of recovery, and also allows us that space to check in with where we are at.

What are three reasons for getting well? Helping us to realise that the eating disorder is not making us invincible, but is actually stopping us really living our lives completely is important. Help us identify those things we want to do. For me this involved travelling, meals out with friends, and realising I didn’t want this to be something that was part of my future!

What steps are you doing to work on your recovery this week? And how can I help? Having an eating disorder, we need to take steps daily to challenge it and push those boundaries. It can feel relentless and exhausting, so identifying these weekly is really important. Within this, please don’t call our steps small or baby, because to us they may feel big!

What do you want your story to be? My friend, Emma, recently asked me this and it resonated with me so much! So often in recovery from an eating disorder we forget we can move into victory, and I knew for me that I didn’t want to look back at key parts of my life and think I wish I had worked harder. Or even when I get married, I don’t want my kids to look back and see a Mum who is struggling with her body image! Ask us this, and help us re-write our stories!

I know that even if you are eating, it doesn’t mean that things are okay. Often we judge eating disorders on someone’s weight, but there is so much more to them that this!

Hope Virgo book cover
©Hope Virgo

Saying 'I'm so so proud of you for what you have done, and achieved. I know that can’t be easy but well done'.

Can we not talk about dieting or weight? We all have relatives that talk about dieting, exercise, weight… and this can be really triggering for people with eating disorders. Remember this and at times move that conversation on. Set boundaries for us and help to create those safe spaces

Let’s do an activity! We don’t want to do everything around food, and having other activities helps us get our love of life back. Not only this, but having distractions up your sleeve after mealtimes can be really helpful!

I am not the enemy, the eating disorder is!

Bonus Tip: Invest in a wheat bag to help your young person with bloating after meals.

Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be really hard. And the fact is when you have an eating disorder, you feel so unlovable a lot of the time. You are constantly pushing people away, and at times the shame gets too much so you push, push, push! When we do this please be patient with us.

Looking after a young person with an eating disorder can be a complete and utter minefield, but it is possible. Despite the many tears and arguments, recovering from an eating disorder is worth fighting for.

Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, Consultant Psychiatrist in the NHS and Clinical Lead at The Soke adds: “Being around family members as lockdown begins to ease may generate critical comments from family members, lead to greater scrutiny (over how much and how quickly food is consumed) at meal times and challenge the need for control that lies at the heart of many eating disorders.

"As a parent, it can be extremely painful to see your child struggling and also appearing to make poor decisions in tackling their eating disorder. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the best approach usually goes against one's parental instinct and requires parents to observe, encourage and support from the fringes, rather than jumping in with (what feel like obvious) solutions. There is evidence from the medical literature that over involvement and perceived criticism are likely to make things worse."

Hope Virgo is an award-winning mental health campaigner and the author of Hope Through Recovery, out on 1st April, published by Welbeck Balance, priced £12.99

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