Eating disorders

Messages to family and carers about eating disorders

Supporting a young person with an eating disorder can be very difficult for parents, siblings and carers. Here young people talk about the messages and advice they wanted to pass on to worried carers.

“Don’t ignore it. But don’t be forceful on children. Just try and get a really close relationship with them and try to understand what they’re going through.” -Ewan 

The young people we spoke with all acknowledged how hard things had been for their carers. It had been difficult for them to know best how to help. As Hannah O said, reaching out to a person with an eating disorder can be difficult as the person doesn't necessarily feel ill or like they need or want help. Katie described how hard it must be for parents to watch their child so unwell, feeling like they were “dying in front of their eyes”.

It was only after they started getting better that many people felt they were fully able to appreciate the support from family and carers. Laura described how parents can be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing and Anna felt parents often get blamed for the eating disorder. Hannah O pointed out how things could be much harder to deal with if people lacked information and understanding about eating disorders.

‘Be there and show that you care’

The most important thing young people wanted to tell worried parents and carers was to “just be there”. People stressed how important it was for family to be available, to listen and to show genuine care to the young people. They said it might not always be easy for parents or carers to reach them but it was still really important for young people to see that they made an effort. This could bring down barriers and eventually make it easier for young people to open up when they felt ready.

Many urged parents to form open and trusting relationships with their children from a young age so it would be easier to raise any concerns down the line. When the relationship had broken down or was more distant, they encouraged carers to try and learn to understand their child, however difficult it might be. Nikki said it was more helpful to have the space to talk about feelings and emotions rather than to only focus on food and eating.
Young people advised parents and siblings to express their love and care, especially during difficult times. Elena said helping the young person build their confidence, could be key to helping them feel better about themselves.
‘Don’t blame’
Young people wanted their problems to always be taken seriously and not feel ‘belittled’ or that their concerns were ‘brushed off’. They also warned adults to never blame the young person for their eating disorder. Having an eating disorder could be difficult for all the family, causing tension and arguments. When people were unwell they could seem reclusive, hostile or secretive. They also reminded parents to be aware of how skilful they could become at hiding things, when in the grip of an eating disorder. They said it was important to realise that this was caused by the eating disorder, not something young people did “on purpose”. Katie pointed out “it’s not something somebody would choose” to do.
“For parents I would say remember that it is not your daughter/son who is behaving horribly. It is the eating disorder. My mam used to say it was like I was possessed and she had to remind herself that her daughter was in there somewhere.” -Rachel
Some also made the point that parents should not feel guilty for the child developing an eating disorder.
People urged parents, siblings and carers to not get angry with them. Jasmin said getting angry would just push people away and “make things worse”. Steph said it was important to feel that parents weren’t acting against the child, but parents and child working against the eating disorder together.
‘Find what works for your child’

Many young people felt that their parents were the ones who knew their child better than anyone else. They encouraged other parents to have the confidence to trust their instincts, if they felt something was wrong. Young people talked about finding the right balance between stepping in to help and being too forceful, which could result in breaking trust. Some preferred their parents to step in quickly by for example taking them to the GP, even against their will. Eva said that the longer it was left, the harder it got. People pointed out that, when they were dangerously ill, being taken to the doctor had possibly saved their life. Others wanted their parents to take a more gentle approach and give them space. They said it was enough for them to know their family or carer was there when they felt ready.
Laura suggested parents should always seek advice on what to do when they suspect something is wrong with their child.
‘Get support for yourself’

Many young people urged carers to seek support for themselves. People described how their parents had benefitted from talking to other parents. This kind of support is available through different organisations. They also encouraged parents to seek support from health professionals or just to do things they enjoy so that their whole life wasn’t taken over by their child’s eating disorder.
They also urged carers to find as much information as possible from B-eat or NHS websites, hospital leaflets, eating disorder and mental health charities or research papers. Suzanne also urged carers to provide their child with appropriate information and help them understand eating disorders better. Zoe said the important thing for carers was to be aware of how common and how serious eating disorders can be.
Beat and Young Minds have helplines for parents, carers and other adults worried about someone with an eating problem visit our resources section for phone numbers and links. 

Last reviewed October 2018.


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