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Parenting Tips for Helping Your Child With Anorexia
In the winter of 2017, a debilitating illness, anorexia nervosa, shattered my daughter’s life. The fight against this disease is intense and requires all the mental, emotional, physical and social resources a family can muster. Although my daughter’s disease was probably in her mind and body for several months before her diagnosis, once the disease took over her body, it was relentless in its quest to take her life, literally.
First, every child/person/patient is different and you need to be attuned to what your child needs personally. On the other hand, this disease is remarkably similar in all patients and that is because it IS a disease with a disease pattern and a specific etiology. Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge that this is a real disease, as serious as cancer. Seek professional help from a doctor who specializes in eating disorders as soon as possible. Early intervention can be the difference between a one-year recovery or a two- to three-year recovery.
Second, realize that this disease has developed over a longer period than you realize, so recovery will take just as long. You and your family are in for the long haul; this process will most likely consume all of your immediate family’s collective time and energy for at least several months to a year or two or longer. Your main job during the first several months is simply to keep your child re-fed. You may not have the time or the energy to do anything else. Like feeding a newborn, this can be a constant job.
Third, recognize that the fight against this disease is intense and requires all of the family’s mental, emotional, physical and social resources. The best defense is to enlist the help of a doctor, counselor and nutritionist. Your child will likely also need a child psychiatrist, as there are certain medications that are useful in treating co-occurring disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. At one point in my daughter’s recovery, we were taking her to four different appointments a week just to keep up with the intense needs to fight this disease.
Fourth, if one intervention doesn’t work after a few months, try something else. In my daughter’s one-year recovery process, she first went to a partial hospitalization program (for 3 months). After 6 weeks at home, she relapsed and went to an inpatient program (for 1 month). Rather than going back to a partial hospitalization program (which is the recommended inpatient retreat), we choose to implement an intensive, modified Maudsley approach at home. I took partial family medical leave for about 9 months during this time. When we used the Maudsley approach at home, either my husband or I ate every meal with her.
Fifth, if there are two parents or caregivers in the family, always present a united front. Your daily tactics with your daughter or son must be unified. The anorexic mind will look for any opportunity to find any ambiguity in your system. Together, you both need to be diligent in encouraging your child to eat and rest. Be supportive of your child and each other.
Sixth, be willing to give up old family habits, even good ones. Our family took pride in our daily family dinners around the kitchen table where we shared our day. With our daughter’s anorexic mind, that habit became impossible. While she was afraid to eat, we had to find ways to entertain her. Humorous TV shows worked. At one point in our lives, we scoffed at the notion of having a family dinner in front of the TV and now every meal required us to watch about three episodes of humorous TV shows including Seinfeld and The Office. However, this new habit helped our daughter smile and eventually she relaxed enough to eat her meals.
Finally, if you find a food or food group that he or she will eat; let them eat as much of it as they want, even if it does not contain a balanced meal. At one point, our daughter was living on peanut butter and bananas. In our house, we probably went through several jars a week, but clearly her body and brain needed that kind of nutrition and she was ready to eat it.
Get support from family, friends, church or other spiritual group. I will share more tips and information in my next article.
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