Parents, carers and other family members are usually the main support system for sufferers of an eating disorder. However, eating disorders can become particularly arduous on our coping abilities. Parents and/or carers often report that they are lacking the skills and resources required to effectively care for their loved one. We have devised a series of blogs specifically written for parents and carers to provide information about the skills and support necessary to support their loved one through their recovery. The blogs will cover a range of topics including reflecting on your own responses as a parent and/or carer, learning how to communicate with your loved one, helping your loved one manage their emotions, making rules and setting boundaries and self-care strategies to take care of you. Please subscribe to our blog to receive each part of this series.
This first blog focuses on taking some time to reflect on your own way of responding to the eating disorder and to appreciate how each style of responding may be helpful or unhelpful in various situations. It is natural that carers and family members may get caught up in patterns of behaviour that can get in the way of them providing effective help and further perpetuate the eating disorder. Professor Janet Treasure has developed a set of animal metaphors, described below, to provide an insight into some of the most common behavioural and emotional responses of people who support and care for someone with an eating disorder. You may notice that you identify with more than one animal metaphor; this is expected and quite normal.
Some common behaviours of parents and carers who are caring for a loved one with an eating disorder are:
Kangaroo Care (too much sympathy and micromanagement)
A kangaroo care response may occur when the fragile state of a sufferer makes you feel as though you need to keep them completely safe, as if they are in a pouch, to protect them from any possible upset or stress. The kangaroo will accommodate all demands, regardless of whether they are rational or driven by the eating disorder. However, this type of response will stop the sufferer from being able to face and overcome challenges on their own.
The Rhinoceros Response (too much control and direction)
It is natural for carers and family members to become stressed, frustrated and exhausted by the eating disorder. This may result in carers and family members trying to persuade and convince the sufferer to change their behaviour through argument and confrontation. It is important to highlight that even though the sufferer may obey, this type of response prevents the sufferer from developing the belief that they can do this without assistance. Further, the more likely response to a rhinoceros is for the sufferer to feel the need to defend the eating disorder, strengthening the eating disorder voice.
The Dolphin (just enough subtle direction)
Rather than falling into the rhinoceros or kangaroo extremes, try to model yourself on a dolphin. A dolphin may swim ahead at times, leading the way and guiding the passage and at other times may swim alongside you coaching and giving encouragement. When the sufferer is making progress, the dolphin will quietly swim behind showing trust and confidence.
Another part of the relationship with our loved one which can become difficult whilst dealing with an eating disorder is learning how to balance our emotional response. Some of the most common emotional responses from parents and carers are:
The Ostrich (too little emotion)
For some carers and family members the thought of having to challenge or confront the eating disorder causes distress. It may be easier to avoid the eating disorder, putting their head in the sand like an ostrich. However, it is possible for the sufferer to misinterpret this type of response as being uncaring. Further, seeing a carer or family member supressing their emotions is an unhelpful example for the sufferer to follow. Instead, we want to encourage emotional honesty and to normalise the experience of emotions.
The Jellyfish (too much emotion)
Sometimes carers and family members may be unable to regulate their own emotional responses to the eating disorder. This is called the jellyfish response and can be due to the carer or family member holding false interpretations about the eating disorder, having high levels of self-blame or perfectionistic expectations about their role as a parent. The jellyfish response may also be due to a carer or family member feeling exhausted, tense or stressed. Importantly, carers must remember that these feelings are impacting on their own health making it difficult for them to effectively care for others.
The St Bernard Dog (warmth and calmness)
Rather than falling into the ostrich or jellyfish extremes, try to model yourself on the St Bernard dog. This involves being able to accept and process the pain of what is lost through an eating disorder so that you can act out of love and kindness, even in the most difficult of situations. The St Bernard is known to be unfailing, reliable and dependable in all circumstances. In addition, he provides companionship, warmth, nurture and instills hope that change is possible.
In addition to reflecting on your behavioural and emotional responses to the eating disorder, it is worth exploring your own relationship to food and your body image. This is an incredibly valuable exercise which may help foster a more honest relationship with yourself and with your loved one. You can read more suggestions of how to help promote a positive relationship with food and your body for yourself and your loved one here.
If you would like more support in understanding your own patterns of responding to your loved ones eating disorder please contact us at BodyMatters Australasia. We can provide one off consultations and ongoing consultations for parents and partners. In addition, we offer parent and partner support groups on the first Saturday of each month.
Stay tuned for our next installment of our parent and carers blog series on how to communicate with your loved one about their eating disorder.
Treasure, J., Schmidt, U., & McDonald, P. (2010). The clinicians guide to collaborative caring in eating disorders. London: Routledge
Treasure, J., Smith, G., & Crane, A. (2007). Skills-based learning for caring for a loved one with an eating disorder: The new Maudsley method. London: Routledge.