Written by Cherie Massmann, LPC, NCC
That day is terrifying and confusing! The day a doctor or mental health providers confirms it – your child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Immediately the guilt floods in. What did I do? What didn’t I do? How could I have possibly missed this? Then the blame starts and is followed quickly by anger. It is only natural to start the search for a cause or for someone, anyone to blame. As a family therapist who primarily treats eating disorders I have had a front row view of that fear and anger in the families that I treat and I can tell you that blame in any form DOES NOT HELP! There are however things that parents are uniquely qualified to do that can mean the difference between life and death.
If you child is diagnosed with cancer the parental instinct is to come together, gather the appropriate information, surround your child with the love of family and friends, and marshal the forces to do absolutely everything that you can to beat the cancer as quickly as possible. Life seems to stop for all those involved. Parents of children diagnosed with cancer don’t care as much about the cause or assigning blame. They want their child well as soon as possible and are willing to suffer the pain of radiation, chemotherapy, and possibly surgery to make that happen. They understand the urgency. Cancer kills! What parents of a child with an eating disorder may not know is that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illness and the longer their child goes untreated the harder is becomes to treat it.
A child with an eating disorder is a starving child. When a child does not get enough or the correct nutrients, either unintentionally or because the child is actively trying to restrict calories, binge and/or purge, they begin to act in predictable ways. They might become obsessed with thoughts about food, they start to read labels and count calories, they try to burn calories by pacing, and they start to eat very slowly – breaking foods into tiny bites. They report that they are too tired to eat or have already eaten- anything to avoid coming to the table. These behaviors can be very frustrating to parent without the correct information. However with the right support and information this predictability can aid parents in their goal to restore their child back to health.
The Family Based Treatment Model commonly referred to as the Maudesly Method or (FBT) empowers parents to learn the much needed re-feeding skills that are key to helping their child recover from Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia. Most parents instinctively know what a child needs to eat and how often but just like their child become confused and sucked into the confusion of the eating disorder. “I know she needs carbohydrates but she says that she does not like them anymore”. Or “He used to love my homemade chocolate chip cookies but now he won’t even look at them.” Parents who are taught to look for the constant internal “noise” of eating disorders begin to see more clearly that their child has been severely weakened mentally and physically by the lack of food. In reality the child still likes cookies and bread but their brain is telling them that they are “bad”, “too much sugar” or “not for you”. They are terrified much the same way people are afraid of heights or mice and it is paralyzing. FBT teaches parents to be relentlessly in their efforts to feed their child and this pays off. Most parents see improvements in their child’s mood, energy level, concentration and overall health in the first four weeks of treatment. One of the best resources out there for parents who are interested in the FBT approach is a book written by James Locke, MD, PhD and Daniel LeGrange, PhD titled, “Helping Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder”.
If you have a child who is currently battling with an eating disorder and would like more information, please contact us at Webster Wellness Professionals at 314-737-4070.
Cherie Massmann, M.A, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Webster Wellness Professionals. She earned her Master’s degree in Counseling from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1999. She is a cognitive-behaviorally trained therapist with over 9 years of experience treating binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and obesity in adults and adolescents as a staff therapist in the Departments of Psychiatry and Internal Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. She has been part of several multi-center National Institute of Health grants including: the Treatment Options for Type 2 Diabetes in Adolescents and Youth (TODAY study) and the Comprehensive Maintenance Program to Achieve Sustained Success (COMPASS), a treatment of childhood obesity. She currently serves as a staff psychotherapist for the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy (CALERIE study) at Washington University School of Medicine.