Ten Acts of Courage For Parents of Children With Eating Disorders
By Joanna Poppink, L.M.F.T.
Creating a healthy family system surrounds the eating disorder child with an environment that supports her recovery. All family systems have strengths and weaknesses, and many dysfunctional families do not give rise to a child with an eating disorder. Nevertheless, while a dysfunctional family does not create an eating disorder, a family that strives to be as honest and healthy as possible can help a child with an eating disorder to heal.
Do you have the courage to go into a burning building to save your child? Courage comes from the Latin 'cor' meaning heart. Courage means going into the unknown despite fear and being led by the heart.
If your child suffers from an eating disorder her life is in danger. And the steps you take to try to save her are not as clear as rescuing her from a fire. You can't reach into her inner world and pull her out of a destructive way of thinking, feeling and behaving. But, you can take some heart-guided actions that help to heal your child. Some actions may appear straightforward while others may be confronting and painful. However, like going into the burning building to save your child, your love and courage will equip you face the challenges ahead.
Ten Acts of Parent Courage
- Keep communication clear and open with your spouse. Negotiate any differences so your day-to-day living with each other and your family reflects your shared values.
Be courageous about communicating.
- Establish and maintain respectful boundaries for yourself and the people around you. Say "no" when "no" is required. Expect yourself and others to keep their word and carry out their responsibilities. This relates to paying bills, living within an allowance or budget, transportation needs, laundry, maintenance of personal property (including cars, clothes, rooms, bureau and desk drawers, etc.)
Be courageous about saying no.
- Establish an honest relationship with your spouse and dissolve or resolve secrets. If you live in a complex family structure, establish an authentic relationship with your spouse and your child's other parent and any other children and stepchildren.
Be courageous about being honest.
- Learn to quietly and with generous patience listen to any member of your family, especially during times of intense emotion. Then, without taking any action or supplying any solutions, articulate your understanding of what they said and feel and mean. Ask them to help you understand if they think you are missing something.
Be courageous about listening.
- Find or rediscover a joyous and satisfying activity for yourself and participate in it on a regular schedule. (Remember to honor your boundaries and follow through for yourself.)
Be courageous about honoring your capacity for joy.
- Find or rediscover a joyous and satisfying activity for you and your spouse and participate together on a regular schedule. (Remember to honor your boundaries and follow through.)
Be courageous about recommitting to your marriage.
- Accept the fact that all actions and inactions have consequences. Meet those consequences with caring, empathic and neutral acceptance (in other words, no blame on others and no taking on other's responsibilities). Also know and teach that consequences are not punishment but neutral events. A consequence of rain is that we can get wet. We then decide what actions we will take to deal with the rain. The rain is not punishing us (even if it's inconvenient to our plans).
Be courageous about facing reality without judgment.
- Know in your heart that your children are temporarily in your care while you raise them to be competent, responsible and compassionate adults. You raise them to maturity and then they leave. Your primary relationship is with your spouse. (In other words, be wary of situations that align one parent with a child and isolate the other parent. This gives a confusing and problematic message to a child about his or her power and position in the family system.)
Be courageous about letting your children grow up and be independent.
- Regardless of how anyone in or out of the family responds, live a healthy life style: reasonable and healthful portions of various foods in regular meals presented and eaten with grace; reasonable and healthful amounts of regular exercise; reasonable and healthful amounts of regular sleep; reasonable and healthful amounts of work and play.
Be courageous about caring for yourself.
- Know that living an honest and healthy life yourself, loving and honoring your spouse, respecting boundaries and being there for each other will affect your child in positive ways and, over time, contribute greatly to his or her healing.
Be courageous about trusting that a healthy present will bring a healthy future.
Joanna Poppink, L.M.F.T.
is a Los Angeles psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with people recovering from eating disorders and their loved ones. She has been in practice since 1980 and is the author of 'Triumphant Journey Workbook': a guide to stop overeating and recover from eating disorders. She gives presentations on treatment, prevention and family dynamics as they relate to eating disorders to professional gatherings and to local schools and community centers. You can learn more about her work, her professional background and read her writings by going to her website: Eating Disorder Recovery: Information & Links