Eating disorders a struggle for the whole family

Parents are the “priceless resource” needed to help a child recover from an eating disorder. So stress two Ontario eating disorder specialists who say “a more specialized or better hospital” is not always the answer for this devastating illness.

“It is you helping your child to eat that will make the difference,” say Dr. Ahmed Boachie and Dr. Karin Jasper, whose comprehensive new book, A Parent’s Guide to Defeating Eating Disorders, offers guidance to parents who are stymied and scared by their child’s refusal to eat.

(Sun Media News Services)

Unlike books that focus on preventing eating disorders, Boachie and Jasper’s book is about how parents can “defeat” the illness that attacks like a stealth bomber to rob their child from them. Where they work at the Eating Disorder Program at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont., 80 per cent of their patients are in outpatient programs but parents are partners in the treatment with their children.

“The relationship that parents have with their children is the most important relationship children have,” Boachie said in an interview. “It is like the air we breathe — and without it we would not have life.”

To help rather than hinder a child’s progress requires a mind-shift in a household. For example, parents, many of whom blame themselves for their child’s illness, can be especially confused as to how to manage mealtimes — the foundation of recovery. Should they cajole their child into eating by offering and withholding rewards, or should they shift the focus entirely off food?

There are countless other issues, too: To argue against or comply with a child’s wishes? To offer different foods or a strict meal plan? Consult another doctor or treatment facility?

Family treatment is what works, says Boachie, who urges parents to “ally with the treatment rather than the eating disorder.”

“If parents take some food away, the child will calm down and appear happier,” Jasper explains, adding that by minimizing their expectations of what the child should eat, parents inadvertently ally with their child’s fear around food.

“However, her body needs enough food to provide for the development of her heart, brain, bones and other organs. So although she will be calmer (with less food), she will also become sicker and eventually medically compromised.”

Once parents appreciate that the illness can kill their child or make them chronically ill, they can sit with their child and help them face the food they need in order to survive.

Family therapy requires bravery on the part of parents. It demands that parents — not doctors — take charge of nutrition and weight restoration by managing a child’s meals and disrupting their food restriction, purging or over-exercising. Parents learn that the illness has “overtaken” their child and that their child is not being stubborn or disobedient by refusing food.

Granted, it can’t be easy, particularly when many wonder why kids with eating disorders simply don’t eat their way back to health. But there are serious physical complications that arise with re-feeding someone who is starving.

And telling someone with an eating disorder to “just eat” is “like telling someone who is afraid of heights to jump out of an airplane,” says Dr. Jasper. “They are terrified and facing a meal, they feel that everything they have worked hard at to keep themselves acceptable, likeable, attractive and good is about to be ripped away from them.”

— MARILYN LINTON, Sun Media News Services