When you live in stress and fear around the clock because your teen has been diagnosed with anorexia, it is easy to think that there is nothing good happening. But one of the best things a parent can do is to become aware of every little bit of progress, and to take note of it. Beyond noticing what is going right, parents can deliberately create meaningful moments, starting with the goal of one meaningful moment a day.
If you are the parent of an anorexic teen, I challenge you to find and/or create one meaningful moment a day. These moments add up, and they will become your roadmap to success. Most of us are on automatic pilot, and our teen’s anorexia is keeping us from seeing anything other than the struggle. It is so important to recognize that what we are doing matters. It takes effort, but it is worth it.
When I first told family members and a few close friends about my daughter’s anorexia, most had the same reaction. There seemed to be a universal assumption that anorexia meant that everything in my daughter’s entire life was terrible and always will be, and therefore everything in my life was also terrible and always will be. The most well-meaning people expressed how sorry they were that we would have to live with anorexia for the rest of our lives.
Well, it’s a good thing that I know how to manage my mind, and therefore I am not obligated to take on the collective thoughts and feelings that the general public has about anorexia. Instead of being upset by their reactions, I was fascinated. I was the one experiencing what it was like to have a teen with anorexia, yet I felt better about it than they did.
Negative vs. Positive
I’m not saying it was easy. There were some difficult days, weeks, and months. But what I think is most important to share is that they were difficult only part of the time. So, in many ways, the challenges a parent faces when their child has anorexia are very much the same challenges life guarantees for all of us. We will always have a contrast of thoughts and emotions, and no matter what circumstances occur, the normal balance will be 50/50. In other words, with or without anorexia, we will still experience negative emotion about half of the time. And, with or without anorexia, we will still experience positive emotion about half of the time. Whether or not your teen is diagnosed with anorexia, you determine how you feel 100 percent of the time.
At first glance, it may sound like I am sugarcoating something that is far from sweet. I am not downplaying the seriousness of anorexia. What I am doing is emphasizing how much choice we have in what we make our teen’s anorexia mean about her life and about ours. In other words, there is room for meaning in the worst part of anything, including anorexia.
Finding useful meaning in circumstances that are perceived as negative isn’t something that is talked about very often. When is the last time you read a book or article about eating disorders that talked about anything positive? Most of the resources available to parents when their teen is diagnosed with anorexia read like warnings that something terrible is always about to happen. Good things can happen while you are in the process of supporting your teen’s recovery too, but we are conditioned to look for evidence of all of the bad things.
I am grateful that before my teen’s eating disorder, I already knew that thoughts are just sentences in the brain. They are not facts. So, I was able to see anorexia as a condition that caused disordered thoughts in my daughter’s brain. Her thoughts were just sentences in her brain. I had the choice to not believe her thoughts because I knew her thoughts were being hijacked by anorexia, and that those thoughts would not be there forever.
Practicing Useful Thoughts
I may have been the only one who decided that I didn’t have to be afraid of the sentences in her brain. Her thoughts were already so scary to her, that if I had also chosen to be terrified of them, I know I would not have been able to help her. I decided not to believe her thoughts, and to create my own thoughts that were much more useful to me as I fed her and cared for her. That’s how I know it is possible to go through the most difficult anorexic behavior with your teen without getting swept away in the storm.
How can parents of anorexic teens go about doing this? You can consciously create and practice useful thoughts that are counter to hers:
- She thinks she will never get better. You think she will.
- She thinks she can’t handle how bad she is feeling. You believe she can.
- She thinks there is something terribly wrong with her that can never be fixed. You know she is amazing.
- She thinks she can’t wait for her life to end. You think you can’t wait for it to start again.
- She thinks she is fat and ugly. You think she is beautiful.
- She thinks she isn’t worth loving and fighting for. You believe she has a bright future ahead of her.
It isn’t natural to not believe your child. It seems counterintuitive to not believe that her fears are real. It feels wrong to create thoughts and feelings that aren’t what everyone else is thinking and feeling about anorexia.
That is why this is where the work is. More importantly, this is where your power is.
Take Deliberate Action
The worst moments for our teen are when our natural walls go up. We automatically want to make her suffering stop or get away from it. Instead, we need to move toward her pain. In so doing, we are getting closer to our teen.
I have always been able to trust my instincts as a mom, but I made some adjustments after my teen’s diagnosis. I learned to do the opposite of what felt right. I learned to do the opposite of what was natural. I deliberately created more discomfort for her in order to challenge the anorexia. At the same time, I learned to maintain my composure while her behavior was escalating in response to me requiring her to eat. The worse her anorexic behavior became, the more compassionate I learned to be.
This dance is deceiving. It feels as if you are rewarding bad behavior. What you are actually doing is pushing back against the anorexia and showing your teen that you don’t believe the anorexic thoughts that are driving her behavior. Every time you take a stand against the anorexia, you move closer to your teen. These are the meaningful moments, and they add up.
Taking this approach requires planning and practice. You decide how you want to act, and you act. It may not seem to matter at first because the anorexia wants to overpower her. But it matters. You showing up as the parent she loves and trusts makes a difference.
- Every bite the anorexia doesn’t want her to take is an opportunity for you to require her to eat.
- Every minute of misery that the anorexia wants her to spend alone is a minute you can spend distracting her.
- Every negative thought she speaks out loud is a chance for you to question what she thinks is true.
- Every time you tell her you trust her but you don’t trust the anorexia is an affirmation that you are on her side.
- Every time she doubts that she will recover is a time for you to tell her you know she will.
These are all meaningful moments. They matter. It would be much easier to let anorexia have its way. Don’t let anorexia rob you of meaningful moments that result in progress. Every little thing matters. You matter. Your teen matters.
Believe What You Want To Believe
Today, your teen may not be ready to accept the real truth. For now, she is believing the lies that anorexia is telling her. Until she is nutritionally restored and her brain has had adequate time to heal, she may believe she will feel this way forever. You can know that this is temporary.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets. When you know your teen is not her anorexia, you will be right.
- You do not have to believe the anorexia.
- You do not have to believe your teen. (Not her thoughts, her feelings, or her behaviors)
- You do not have to believe what anyone else thinks.
- You don’t have to believe what the treatment providers want you to believe.
- You don’t have to believe the movies, the books, and the articles that are not true in your teen’s case.
Allowing anorexia to take and keep the wheel keeps you from your power. Believing what you want to believe puts you in the driver’s seat.
Believe what you choose to believe. Challenge yourself to look for and create meaningful moments for yourself and your teen. Write them down. Go back and read them. Appreciate your progress. Celebrate your accomplishments. You will never regret believing in your teen; and you will never regret believing in your ability to help your teen recover.
If you want support while you are caring for your anorexic teen, contact me at email@example.com, or sign up for a free consultation at www.peacemealcoach.com.