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Terrible teens: Tips for eating disorder recovery

My daughter is currently in recovery for an eating disorder.

She went through a 20-week intensive outpatient program (IOP) to recover from ARFID, Avoidant Restricted Food Intake Disorder. It’s been a real struggle for her and the whole family to learn new behaviors and therapies. It’s a constant to stay in recovery and work toward being well when it comes to having an eating disorder and there are some things I’ve taken away from living with a person who has an eating disorder. I hope some of this information will help you if you have a loved one with an eating disorder.

It’s never about the food. One of the first lessons I learned in our own parent group was that an eating disorder is not about the food. Your child is trying to gain some sort of control over something. That “something” may have been a traumatic experience/incident in her life. When working with your child in recovery, you get permission to stop being the “food police.” No more, “Should you eat this, should you not eat that?”

We don’t own a scale. It’s not important how much a person weighs. That number does not equate how much someone is valued or loved and it shouldn’t be a priority, especially if you’re dealing with a person with an eating disorder. If your teen is constantly monitoring her weight, this could be a sign of an eating disorder.

And, not but. I was taught to retrain my way of speaking to my daughter, to encourage her and help her to become well. When I spoke to her, I needed to use positive reinforcement on what I needed her to do. In doing so, I switched out the word “but” to “and.” It’s really hard to do, and fascinating to see what kinds of changes can occur (see what I just did there?). Here’s a perfect example: “I’m really glad you cleaned your bathroom and it would be great if you could clean your room too!”

Validation. Validate what your teen is feeling. It’s important to repeat what she is telling you so that she knows you are listening, and then ask what she needs. Do not give your teen saltines if she is asking for water, which is another great lesson I learned from a wonderful therapist. (Saltines just make you want more water!)

Emotions are necessary. Emotions are a vital part of everyone’s makeup, and need to be felt. One of the worst days we had during recovery, I just came home and cried. All I needed to do was to cry. It was an emotion I felt — sadness — and I had to let it go. Afterward, I felt better. Emotions teach us what we need. I felt sad, I needed to cry. I felt better. End emotion.

If you have a loved one who needs help with an eating disorder, please talk to your pediatrician and look into available programs. There are options to help your child. I never thought we’d be where we are now — with a happy, thriving teenage daughter who is no longer fearful of food. My daughter struggled her whole life with physically not being able to try new foods, and not being comfortable in social settings that involved food. Her whole life has completely changed thanks to therapy.

More on eating disorders

What is disordered eating?
Does your teen have an eating disorder?
I never wanted to be the mom with the eating disorder

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