When Your Parent Has an Eating Disorder…

By Johanna Marie McShane, PhD

Since many people suffer from eating disorders well into midlife and beyond, there are a significant number of adult children who have grown up being parented by a mother or father with the illness. Having a parent with an eating disorder poses specific challenges. Here are some tips for both the adult child and the parent.

As the Adult Child of a Parent with an Eating Disorder: How you can help

Your role in relation to your parent's illness and recovery depends on many variables. In general, except in an acute medical or psychiatric crisis (and, some would argue, even then), your parent is an adult and is responsible for his or her own recovery work. You can offer support in whatever ways are comfortable and reasonable, but don't chronically overextend yourself. If you get worn down or become exhausted, you won't be able to take care of yourself, and you won't be in any state to support your parent either.

You also have the right to tell the truth about how the eating disorder affects or has affected you; this will remind your parent that his or her actions have repercussions. When communicating, ask direct questions. Don't beat around the bush, be evasive, or overly subtle. Try not to assume you know what your parent is thinking or feeling.

Explore your personal views

Parents greatly influence our views as we grow up. If you've been parented by someone who has an eating disorder, your perspective was shaped, in part, by a person who has distorted views about food, body, self-image, and perhaps even the world at large. Explore your personal views about body image and self-esteem and see if they are healthy and comfortable. Appreciate ways in which your parent has been a strong and positive role model. Strive to be objective about whether your parent's views are accurate or biased by the illness.

Eating disordered or not, no parent has ever been perfect. Part of our job as we grow up is to discern where we agree with what our parents think, believe, and say, and where we might not. Don't hesitate to get help or support from a professional to sort any of this out.

Take care of yourself

Stay mentally and physically healthy. Take time off, relax, and pursue enjoyable hobbies and activities. No matter what the state of your parent's illness, try to create and engage in a fulfilling life. Your parent would want this, you deserve it, and even though sometimes people think the opposite, restricting your own life will not help your parent recover.

As the Parent with an Eating Disorder: What to say to your adult child

How much to disclose depends on a few variables: The seriousness of the eating disorder, the age of your child and what he or she wants to know, and how significantly you feel the illness has affected your child.

Typically, an adult child will want more information and can manage it better than a teenager or younger person. In any case, be thoughtful about disclosure. You don't want to overwhelm your child or lead him or her to feel responsible for taking care of you or "fixing" your illness. Try to answer questions honestly. This doesn't mean you are obligated to divulge everything, but be truthful.

There might be some information you choose not to reveal because doing so may not be in your child's best interest, or you may feel too vulnerable. Don't feel rushed to instantly provide answers. It is all right (even a good idea often) to take time to think about what and how much to say.

Keep in mind that talking to an adult son or daughter is different from talking to a friend or contemporary. In any family there may be a variety of matters in which children ought not to be involved. Choose carefully what topics are appropriate.

You are a role model for your children (even when they're adults)

Sometimes, as parents, we think our days of role modeling are over once our children are grown, but this is not the case. Your son or daughter continues to watch for cues about how to navigate life. Specific ways in which your child might want advice will differ depending on age and life circumstances. Having you as a sounding-board and role model provides a stable force. You are a constant and fundamental aspect of his or her continuing development.

Continue working on recovery

Recovery is good for you, your children, and the relationship together. Not only does working on and maintaining your health convey a message that you care about and respect yourself, it also demonstrates that you care about your family. By working on recovery (even when it can be difficult at times), you are showing your children the value of working on yourself and the importance of taking good care of themselves as well.