Partners, family, friends and work: help or hindrance?

Last updated on June 14th, 2020

This is a section from Chapter 11 of 'Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well'

How do you get your spouse, your other children, your family, to function well as a team? What about the outside world, with money and work concerns, and people who don’t understand this illness?


The logistics: how can you care for your child and attend to your other commitments?

Caring for a child with an eating disorder often requires big changes in the parents’ lives. This is easier for some of us than for others. Some parents are looking after their children singlehandedly. Some have acrimonious relationships with an ex. Some have other children or elderly parents who need a lot of care. Some are going through treatment for cancer. Even in conditions that look ideal (plenty of support, financial ease etc.), caring for an ill child turns your life inside out, and every parent needs recognition for their heroic work.

For some of us the illness hits so suddenly that all we have in place is emergency measures. We take temporary leave of absence from work, and worry that our employers will run out of patience. We stop activities that used to sustain us, and we stop going to the dentist. But as the saying goes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. How can you reorganise your life so it works for you?

I would like to help you step into a place of choice and personal power. Notice that your frustrations correspond to a desire to attend to what really matters to you. Acknowledge the tensions and give yourself compassion. Remember the acceptance that comes from ‘shit happens’? Look at the cards that are in your hand right now. Many of them are horrible, so it’s utterly understandable that you should be suffering. What can you do with your cards? And is there any way you can buy, borrow or steal some better ones?

If you look at your own situation, you may be able to let go of perfection. You may let go of any of the ‘shoulds’ you’ve read in this book. Being with your child 24/7 to check that she eats and abstains from bingeing or purging may not be for you. You may notice that the crisis has passed, and that you can now be reasonably sure that you can leave your child at home and that she will not self-harm, or binge or purge, and that she will eat what you’ve agreed she would eat.

I’m going to throw some random ideas at you to see if any help you with logistics. They come from parents who are married, single, divorced, full-time workers, freelancers, and whose young or older children are at various stages of the recovery journey. Some of the ideas may be completely inappropriate for your child’s needs at present, but may nevertheless give you hope for a later stage.

  • Both parents take a few weeks off work to attend to the early refeeding stage.
  • One parent takes compassionate sick leave for an indefinite time period. The employer is sympathetic.
  • One parent gets signed off work by their doctor for stress or depression.
  • One or both parents change their work from full-time to part-time, or change to shift work so that there is always someone at home.
  • The child goes into hospital for inpatient treatment or into a day-care centre.
  • Parents lobby for their child to be moved from a distant hospital to a closer one. (In the UK, if you know of an excellent private treatment facility, your doctor may be able to arrange access to it free of charge.)
  • One parent resigns from their job.
  • Grandparents or friends are roped in on a regular basis.
  • A trusted agency home carer regularly turns up for lunchtimes while parents work. I don’t know anyone who does this, but it works with elderly people, and if your child only needs a light level of support, why not?
  • The school supervises daytime meals.
  • Parents resume work full-time and support meals by phone or Skype. [… etc…]

[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]

Siblings

I have only one child, so when it comes to the effect of an eating disorder on siblings, I can only share what I’ve learned from others.

  • Within family therapy, siblings are included in sessions because the philosophy is that the whole family is affected by an eating disorder; everyone needs support, and everyone is offered a role in the treatment. After a while, siblings may lose interest in attending sessions, but the main job is hopefully done by then. They need to hear they’re not responsible for their sibling’s illness, nor for their parents’ distress. They should not be asked to help their sibling to eat, nor to spy on their sibling’s eating in school. On the other hand they are encouraged to behave like anyone would when they see their brother or sister is distressed: with kindness, listening, hugs or doing fun things together.
  • Siblings need an appropriate level of education about the illness, and this will help them step out of the blame game. Work out what to tell them and how. They will be picking up on all kinds of myths from peers and the media. They may become more guarded around friends if they notice any stigma around their brother or sister’s illness.
  • Siblings are very significantly affected, and how they’re affected varies hugely from child to child, and over time. Some kids are very upset and want to help, some are scared and withdrawn, some become fed up with or distressed by the high-intensity behaviours of their siblings and some hate that family life has been turned inside out. Some feel horribly guilty because they tell themselves that they’re somehow responsible for the illness, or that they could do more to help their sibling get well. They can also feel ashamed of their own outbursts, knowing that these make life harder for everyone. They need your unconditional love and acceptance, same as your ill child. […etc…]

[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]

eating disorder support parent

Single parents

I’d like to acknowledge that caring for an ill child on your own is a massive task. You may long for practical help, and you may long for someone to unload onto at the end of a day – someone who can empathise with you. To me, these are absolutely essential to anyone’s well-being. I hope that some of the suggestions in the previous section help you to work out how to undertake this journey in good company.

[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]

Your spouse or partner

It takes a huge amount of teamwork to help someone recover from an eating disorder. Every day, your child goes through a massive internal struggle to get food in his mouth or stop bingeing or purging. Any disagreement or inconsistency between carers opens up the most irresistible escape route and slows down progress. Or, as some like to put it, an eating disorder likes to triangulate – to divide and rule. […]

[End of extract from the chapter]


In this chapter:

  • The logistics: how can you care for your child and attend to your other commitments?
  • Single parents
  • Your spouse or partner
  • Siblings
  • Prevention for your other children
  • Family and friends: how to make good use of them
  • Links with other parents in the same boat
  • Work and money

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