A Therapist Walks the Line
Written by Ilissa Banhazl, MFT
When a therapist treats a young adult eating disorder patient who wishes to include their family in their treatment―I’ll use parents for the purpose of this article―a therapist must walk the line. What I mean is that a skilled therapist will support the parents while gently helping them own their parenting mistakes. We never speak of blame with parents. Instead, we speak about mistakes loving parents make.
In my work, I find that eating disorder patients’ families often have difficulties communicating their needs to one another all the while thinking they are trying their hardest. Words need to be said; healthy communication needs to be taught. Parents of eating disorder patients are very scared. They don’t know how to help their child.
Unfortunately, moms tend to place their own anxiety onto their child in hopes of helping him/her stop the eating disorder and also in trying to alleviate some of their own stress. It’s very difficult for a parent, especially when many families have never really been given tools for healthy communication. Moms have to learn to calm themselves and trust the treatment their child is getting. A mother’s role is to be a good listener and be empathic. Don’t baby your teen/young adult and don’t police their food. They need to take responsibility for their own recovery. Dad also plays an important role with his children, especially boys. If a boy is lucky to have a dad who can talk about feelings, share his own experiences and struggles; a boy will feel more normal and safe.
Although parents can sometimes be resistant to reading books I suggest; I encourage them to read so they may have a better understanding of their child’s particular eating disorder and learn about their role in supporting their child. I also often suggest group, individual, or couples counseling for the parents, so that they can deal with their own feelings as well as look at how their child’s eating disorder affects their relationship and other family members.
The therapist walks the line when they explain to a parent that eating disorders are a family system problem rather than an individual problem. The belief is that the condition grew within a system and can be healed within a system. When a patient does not have a family to support them in counseling, he/she is quite able to recover, but it can be more difficult.
10 Steps for a Therapist When Working with Parents
- Praise your parents for coming in to support their child.
- Explain eating disorders.
- Have the patient express to his/her parents why they invited them in and what they need from their parents.
- Invite the parents to ask questions and express what they need from their child.
- Explain the parent’s role in their child’s recovery.
- Role model some simple communication skills such as “I statements.”
- Suggest books to read and suggest a group for parents with children with an eating disorder.
- Do a go around to find out how everyone’s feeling at the end. Summarize what we have learned about one another and the next steps to take.
- Praise and thank parents again for coming in.
- Consider keeping the meeting to 40 minutes. Ask your client in the beginning of the session if he/she would like to spend about 10 minutes alone with you to process the session, or do this at his/her next appointment.
Do You Know Your Inner Child? Written by Ilissa Banhazl
I’m reading an awesome book that I highly suggest you pick up and read. It’s entitled, Healing Your Aloneness (Finding Love and Wholeness through Your Inner Child) by Erika J. Chopich and Margaret Paul. This is a powerful book for those who feel afraid, lonely, and not good enough. The book states that when we are disconnected from parts of our “selves” we feel these things.
One of the parts we disown is the child. Every adult has a child in them. Our adult disconnects from it’s child because it cannot tolerate painful feelings. Until we integrate the child and the adult we will continue to feel this way. One way to connect back with your child is to pay attention to it. First image your child at a certain age. What are you wearing? How old are you? Can you see your face? Are you happy or sad?
One way to accept the child in you is check in with her/him and ask what she/he really wants, needs, and feels. Respecting the needs of the child integrates her/him with your adult. If you suffer with an eating disorder you probably have been neglecting your child for a while.
Here’s something else you can do. Go to a toy store and walk the aisles of dolls and stuffed animals. See if one of them calls out to you because of something that reminds you of you when you were a child. Then take her/him home with you and begin caring for your doll/stuffed animal. Say kind things to her/him, cuddle her, calm her. Chances are you’ll be kinder to her than to yourself! Somehow, when caring for your doll, it’s like you are taking care of yourself.
Whenever you have strong feelings you can take out your stuffed animal /doll and soothe her/him. Most people with eating disorders need to learn how to self-soothe. If you feel anxious going somewhere, she/he can become a transitional object. Strap her into the car or put her in your purse and off you go with your loving child at your side. You’re not alone anymore. You have yourself, child and adult. If you want to figure out how to integrate your child and your adult and if you want to stop feeling scared and alone, definitely read this book! It’s really quite amazing!
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