5 things not to say to a parent of a child with an eating disorder (and what to say instead)
Spend an hour in an eating disorders parent support group, and you’re likely to get an earful about all the distressing comments they’ve heard from well-meaning friends and family. Of course you don’t want to be one of them.
Melanie Haiken, a parent-to-parent coach, shares her list of the most common wrongheaded things people say about eating disorders, why they can be inadvertently hurtful, and what to say instead.
1. “But she (or he) looks great!”
This is probably the most common comment people blurt out, and it’s usually said in an attempt to offer comfort. But it’s based on a misconception of what an eating disorder really is. In reality, the majority of kids suffering from eating disorders don’t necessarily look sick—it’s the disordered thinking about food, body image, and sense of self that’s at the heart of the disease. And in fact some people with bulimia or binge eating disorder may appear overweight rather than underweight. By starting off this way, you put the parent of a kid with an eating disorder in the awkward position of having to explain and correct the misunderstanding, when the last thing she feels like doing is giving a science lecture.
Try this instead: “You’re such a great mom, and she’s such a great kid. Is there one simple thing I can do to help: Run an errand, make some calls, something else?”
2. “It’s the media’s fault that all these girls have body image issues. If they’d just stop using these super-thin models….”
Yup, all true. It’s just not helpful, at least not right now. Certainly body image issues are part of what can trigger anorexia, and our cultural emphasis on being thin plays a role. But an eating disorder is a complex mental illness, with a long list of factors and conditions that lead up and contribute to it. By focusing on just one—and a superficial one at that—you shut your friend off from talking to you about the painful process of trying to find out what’s really going on with her child.
Try this instead: “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. It’s happening to so many kids now, and it must be so hard on all of you. Please let me bring a meal over for your family. What day is best, and what should I bring?”
3. “I’m dealing with the opposite—my child is overweight…”
It’s not that it’s not a concern that a child is overweight—it is. And it’s easy to see how your child being overweight might seem like a similar concern to a child being underweight. But they’re very different issues. When you compare your child to a child who’s deliberately not eating, you’re comparing a physical condition to a mental illness with deep psychological roots. Also, short of morbid obesity, being overweight isn’t life-threatening, whereas anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness—something your friend has been told by her child’s doctor. So equating the two conditions can leave her feeling like her concerns are being undermined and dismissed, which of course is the last thing you intended.
Try this instead: “I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through, but I know how hard it is to be really worried about your child. Just tell me how I can support you.”
4. “I was anorexic (or bulimic) when I was young and I grew out of it.”
By sharing your own experience, you probably mean to show solidarity and understanding, but unfortunately, saying something like that may make your friend feel just the opposite—like you’re misunderstanding and minimizing her pain and fear. If, for example, your anorexia or bulimia was fairly mild, while her child’s is life-threatening, hearing your story may make her feel even more isolated and outside the “norm.” On the other hand, if your experience was very serious, while her child is still in the early stages, hearing about what happened to you may make your friend feel even more scared. Even stories with a happy ending aren’t necessarily comforting because right now, your friend probably isn’t at all sure her child is going to be fine.
Try this instead: Instead of sharing your story, try asking questions to find out more about what’s going on. Then, if your experience truly feels directly relevant, ask your friend if she’d like to hear your story, and let her come to you when she’s ready.
5. “Have you tried…?”
You might have the best idea in the world, but chances are your friend either already heard it or is already fully immersed in a treatment plan that directly conflicts with whatever you’re about to suggest. A diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia is serious business—once made, doctors and psychologists join together to create a multifaceted treatment plan. That might include a meal plan supervised by a nutritionist, individual and family therapy, support groups, and more. It also means your friend has had way, way too much information thrown at her already. The last thing she needs are suggestions about nutrition, recipes, programs, therapies.
Try this instead: Offer a few kind words of support, your strong shoulder to cry on, your willingness to take phone calls at all hours, and above all, your ability to listen, listen, listen.
Photo: J.K. Califf/Flickr