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The feelings and role of parents

How do other parents feel? What can I do? Where does one go for help? What are the treatment options? How does it affect the rest of the family? How long does it take to recover? I’m a dad and I feel shut out, what can I do?These are some of the frequently posed questions to ABC.  Parent callers want to “offload” their worries and feelings, they want to know if their fears are founded, whether it’s time to approach the GP, how to persuade an unwilling teenager to go to the GP, how they as parents can encourage their child at meal times so that their falling weight stabilizes or that they no longer vomit after eating. They want to know whether uncharacteristic aggressive behaviour and abusive speech or the depression, voices and self-harming are a symptom of the illness. They are so relieved to be reassured that this is often the case, that they are not alone and can receive understanding and practical suggestions as often as they need, from staff who have had first hand experience.

Sadly, despite the intervening years and a little more research on the subject, (including research into the genetic and biological predispositions) the understanding of eating disorders by the general public is still poor and one-sided. Stereotypical attitudes and misconceptions are common. The media has hi-lighted the issue of models and the fashion industry and its effects on a young person’s eating, and although some may be victims of this, we hear a different side. In fact all the callers to the helpline tell of issues of bullying, exam pressure, the demands of being a teenager in terms of change and identity, family break up, loss of a relative, living with the serious illness of a parent and sadly abuse, and sexual abuse. These are the trigger factors into an eating disorder we at ABC are responding to, not the demands of the fashion industry, although the media image which measures a person’s worth by their thinness or physique, does nothing for the self worth of a young person, let alone one coping with any of the above list of issues. Of course eating disorders do not just affect girls or the young.

So back to that question about how parents feel, remembering fathers who have their own emotions too and noting that some of our callers are single parent Dads. Here are some: –

  • Fear as events and behaviour go out of their realm of comprehension and capabilities. Fear of the health implications, now very well known.
  • Terror as they see their most beloved child hurting and appearing to be self-destructing despite everyone’s best efforts.
  • Panic if they see their child losing weight, week after week, that it’s dangerous but they have no idea how low a body can get before it’s critical.
  • Anger and frustration at the apparent illogical mindset of the illness
  • Exhaustion.
  • Misery.
  • Despair.
  • Faith and hope threatened.
  • Guilt that somehow they are doing something wrong, that they have failed to “turn things around”, that they have in some way caused the eating disorder.
  • Shame that people are judging them, accusing them, thinking that there must be something wrong with the family and particularly with the mother for not managing to provide good enough nutrition or indeed persuade her child to eat or have the necessary discipline, authority or care.
  • Isolation as they realise that people do not understand or respond appropriately. One of our callers was informed by another mum at school that she did not wish her daughter to play with her daughter any more and that she had informed the other mothers that the daughter struggling with an eating disorder was “mentally unstable”.  

Raising awareness and understanding of eating disorders is a priority for us at ABC as well as supporting those in need. Our parent Befriending Service provides one to one support for both mums and dads. This support is given by another parent who has supported their own child to recovery and who can provide hope, encouragement and empathy.We also give Insight Days to counsellors, teachers and youth workers.