By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
Being a parent to a child with an eating disorder is hard. Maybe that’s not strong enough a term. It’s exhausting emotionally, physically, and spiritually. But what the research clearly shows is parents are the key to a child’s recovery. The leading researchers in family-based treatment of eating disorders at the Maudsley Hospital in London created a unique way to help parents identify their own parenting patterns and learn how it may interfere with treatment – and what to do instead – through animal models.
Here are some examples of unhelpful parenting styles. See if this speaks a bit to you.
The Jellyfish – in the world of parenting models, this creature is seen as too excitable and lacking control. It stings with barbs that shoot out as everyone tries to tiptoe around it to avoid being attacked. The parent in this scenario is often mirroring the feelings of their child, leaving both in tears, feeling shame and guilt and exhaustion. It’s hard to manage your own feelings when you’re tired and worn out. Often this parent is overtaxed out of fear of losing their child to the disorder, needs support, and is unaware of how they are coming across.
The Ostrich – like the real-world bird, parents will put their head in the sand to avoid the emotional turmoil that is helping a child through an eating disorder. Feelings are overwhelming and maybe even seem dangerous to this parent who avoids confrontation when they can. The misstep here is the child may see the parent’s avoidance as being heartless and thus feel unloved. By learning how to express their emotions, a parent begins to model language and behavior that the child needs to demonstrate as well.
The Kangaroo – who doesn’t want to pull their child back into their little pouch and protect them from harm? This is an act of love but is also unhelpful as the child never learns to master life’s myriad challenges and obstacles. Indeed, they miss out on learning the skills that enable them to live a full adult life.
The Rhinoceros – stubborn and hardheaded, this parenting style is closely associated with being argumentative and confrontational. While this may work in the short term as your child obeys out of fear, they don’t develop confidence that they can take on challenges without that push. In addition, they may develop a stubborn response that rivals the parent’s and become normalized by the parent’s expected tenacious response back.
The Terrier – normally we think of the yappy dog when we think of this parenting model. Parents who constantly wheedle, nag, and wear down their child to recover start to sound like background noise and have little to no impact other than as an annoyance. Soon enough, everyone is just burned out, angry, and feeling constantly criticized.
Instead of these animals, the folks at Maudsley suggest the following animal models as being worthy of developing.
The Dolphin – when these mammals swim together, the parents are regularly monitoring their offspring and acting accordingly. Sometimes they are gently nudging them along, swimming ahead to show them the way, swimming beside them providing encouragement, and sometimes falling behind as the little one develops a sense of mastery and freedom. In the case of an eating disorder, the parent leads the way to get their child past the crisis stage and into treatment. Eventually the parent helps their child by nudging them gently to choose recovery behaviors with steadiness and consistency to follow their meal plan and work on therapy goals; and slowly backs off as their child shows they can manage their own recovery. And the parent moves fluidly to one position or another as needed.
Finally, we have The St. Bernard – this lovable mug is the epitome of gentleness and compassion. It represents faith and hope that an eating disorder can be managed by being steadfast, reliable, and available whenever someone needs nurturance. Parents following this model develop their own inner reserves of love and peace through self-care, so they are ready and able to give it back to their child who so desperately needs it.
No parent ever gets it perfect. That’s not the goal. The hope is every day you are working to observe your own parenting actions, and your own emotional and physical needs. Then you can adjust to meet the needs of your child working to recover from an eating disorder.
If we can be of help in that process, please contact us at The Body Image Therapy Center at 877-674-2843 x 0 or email@example.com. The Body Image Therapy Center is located in Baltimore, MD, Columbia, MD, Washington, DC, and Alexandria, VA.