I don’t have kids. However, the issue comes up for some of the people whom I coach who do. We’ve had to problem solve around this and there is never a one-size-fits-all answer. The purpose of these blog series is to help you anticipate things that may come up for you or your partner in recovery and the family as a unit.
Just like absolutely everything else surrounding eating disorder recovery, you and your partner simply have to talk about a couple of things:
- How to proceed with the FBT for adults approach and not compromise the peace at family mealtimes.
- The impact that the eating disorder may or may not have had on family life thus far.
- Any eating disorder-ish behaviours that children may have picked up or copied.
- The genetic probability that your children with have a tendency towards eating disorders.
- Depending on age of children, do their own dietary “choices” trigger the parent sufferer?
That’s just for starters on the children conversation that you’ll need to have. More will come up that is specific to your own situations.
I’m going to devote a couple of blog posts to managing an adult eating disorder recovery in a household with children, and I am going to start with point #1.
How to proceed with the FBT for adults approach and not compromise the peace at family mealtimes.
If you have established a partner as the EDCP (support person), and this person sets meal portions and provides meal support for the adult sufferer, you may be wondering how on earth you see through with this if your children are at the table with you. Especially difficult if you have young kids who are blissfully unaware that there is an eating disorder in the house. One parent dictating to the other how much and when to eat will seem odd to them.
Frankly there is not much about eating disorders or recovering from them that isn’t odd.
Even more alarming for children may be the arguments that may crop up when the eating disorder has a tantrum and makes the sufferer refuse to eat or have an anxiety attack. Both parents will be aware that an argument may upset the children, so it stands to reason that the EDCP will not challenge the eating disorder as much at family meals. Because the eating disorder knows that the EDCP is likely to challenge or ask them to eat more in front of the children due to the EDCP not wanting to embarrass the sufferer, it will play up more in these circumstances. Because eating disorders are nefarious like that.
Remember, an eating disorder tantrum is pretty run of the mill when helping and encouraging a sufferer with an eating disorder to eat. In fact, for recovery to be affective it usually means that the sufferer has to be made to eat more than he or she wants, and foods that the eating disorder doesn’t want them to eat. This sort of confrontation often leads the eating disorder to freak out. While the adult whom the eating disorder is affecting probably hates the thought of shouting and screaming in front of his or her children, unfortunately the eating disorder won’t care a hoot.
Support has to be compassionate
While an eating disorder freak out is normal in recovery, that need not and should not lead to an argument between the sufferer and their support person. The role of the support person is to encourage with compassion and kindness, and this is even more important when the eating disorder is giving the sufferer a hard time.
1. Understand that the eating disorder is not the parent
I am hoping by now that you understand that the eating disorder is not the person. It can be a good thing to remind yourself that the eating disorder is not the parent either. The person can be the most wonderful and skilled parent in the world, but the eating disorder is likely to be a selfish and inconsiderate parent when it is put under pressure.
Any mealtime tantrums, or even just irritability therefore should be treated as the eating disorder and not the sufferer. If you are the EDCP it is important that you understand that your partner is not in control when they freak out or are anxious at mealtimes. It is not productive therefore to blame them. If you are the sufferer yourself, again, blame and feeling guilty is not productive.
What is productive, is planning for success and being proactive about reducing mealtime stress.
2. Talk about a strategy for the kids
If you have young children it might be easier for them to be fed early and the parents eat together, alone, later. Remember the plan is that this meal support stage doesn’t last forever, and soon enough you can reintroduce family meals that can be enjoyed by all.
If you have older children it might be that you all want to eat as a family. If you think the kids are mature enough you may want to consider bringing them in and talking candidly about what eating disorders are and what is going on.
If you have children who are fussy eaters, it may be that their behaviour is not ideal for the sufferer to observe or deal with.
If you have children who eat really well, it may be that their mealtime behaviors is a fantastic inspiration to the sufferer.
There is no blanket solution here, but there is one thing that I know will help you and your partner work it out as a team: you have to talk about it.
3. Code words are brill!
You can even have some fun with this. Develop code words for things like “you need to eat more” so that you can communicate recovery meal support themes without causing too much disruption. The main thing is to establish how meal support can be given without embarrassing the parent sufferer in front of the children (or anyone else for that matter.)
4. Have a backup plan
So what if a meal doesn’t go to plan, and the sufferer doesn’t eat enough food or doesn’t finish the plate that the EDCP wants them to eat? Without invoking a row in front of the children, what can the EDCP do?
A backup plan may be an agreement that the sufferer and the EDCP will come back to the meal after the children are out of the way and the sufferer will receive more support to finish the meal. Or, it may be that a protein or other high-calorie drink is consumed by the sufferer after the meal to make up for it.
5. Talk about it later
The funny thing about eating disorders, is that they give off this atmosphere which makes it really difficult to talk about them. Then within a couple of hours they become the elephant in the room. It is vital that you talk about a hiccup incurred at a meal as soon as possible afterwards.
If you are the EDCP: don’t wait for the sufferer to start the conversation, as the eating disorder won’t often let them.
If you are the sufferer: try and start the conversation but certainly do not resist if the EDCP tries to bring it up after the meal.
6. Reconsider family meals
I’m coming back to this again as I think it is important. You have to put eating disorder recovery as priority. If this means that for a month or so mummy and daddy need to eat meals separately from the kids, then this is what you have to do.
Firstly, you don’t have to “miss” the kids meals, you can still sit with them, chat, have a cup of tea etc while they eat. Not only will you both be less stressed and more able to listen fully while you talk with them, you’ll avoid them picking up on any mealtime tension that the eating disorder creates. Kids are smart and they pick up on all sorts of things.
Second, remember this is not forever. If you are unable to get the sufferer to a restored weight within a couple of months of FBT at home then you should be considering inpatient treatment of some sort. The idea is, that if you really both concentrate on the sufferer’s recovery, that pretty soon mealtime stress will reduce to the point that eating with the kids again is much easier.
Next weeks post is an extension of this and a tricky one: how to access if the eating disorder has been noticed by the children and how to make sure that it doesn’t change their relationship with food.
Got ideas? What did I miss? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.