Tips for Parents to Help Your Child With Anorexia

In the winter of 2017, a debilitating illness, anorexia nervosa, destroyed my daughter’s life. The battle against this disease is intense and requires all the mental, emotional, physical and social resources that a family can muster. Although my daughter’s illness had probably been on her mind and body for several months prior to her diagnosis, once the illness took over her body, she was relentless in her quest to literally take her life.

First, every child / person / patient is different and you need to be in tune with what your child needs personally. On the other hand, this disease is remarkably similar in all patients and this is because it IS a disease with a pattern of disease and a specific etiology. Therefore, the first step is to recognize that it 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 make the difference between a recovery period of one year or a recovery period of two to three years.

Second, keep in mind that this disease developed over a longer period than you think, so recovery will take just as long. You and your family are ready for the long term; 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 more. Your main job during the first few months is simply to help your child get fed again. You may not have the time or energy to do anything else. Like feeding a newborn, this can be a 24-hour job.

Third, recognize that the battle against this disease is intense and requires all the mental, emotional, physical and social resources of the family. The best defense is to enlist the help of a doctor, a counselor, and a nutritionist. Your child will likely need a child psychiatrist as well, as there are some medications that are helpful in treating co-occurring disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. At one point in my daughter’s recovery, we would take her to four different appointments a week just to meet the intense needs of fighting this illness.

Fourth, if one intervention doesn’t work after a few months, try another. In my daughter’s recovery process, which lasted a year, 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 revert to a partial hospitalization program (which is the recommended inpatient reduction), we opted to implement an intensive and modified Maudsley approach at home. I took a partial family medical leave for about 9 months during this time. When we used the Maudsley method at home, 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. You need to unify your daily tactics with your daughter or son. The anorexic mind will look for any opportunity it can to find any ambiguity in its system. Together, you should both be diligent in encouraging your child to eat and rest. Support your child and others.

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 custom became impossible. As long as she was terrified of eating, we had to find ways to distract her. The humorous television shows worked. At one point in our lives, we ridiculed the notion of having family dinner in front of the television, and now each meal required us to watch about three episodes of humorous television shows, including Seinfeld and The Office. However, that new habit helped our daughter smile and she finally relaxed enough to eat.

Lastly, if you find a food or food group that you will eat; let them eat all they want, even if it doesn’t include a balanced meal. At one point, our daughter lived on peanut butter and bananas. At our house, we probably go through several jars a week, but clearly her body and brain needed that kind of nutrition and she was willing to eat them.

Get support from your family, friends, church, or other spiritual group. I will share more tips and information in my next article.

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