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4 tips for coping with your child's anorexia

We look at ways you can help them through this difficult challenge.

02 February 2015
by Wendy Maritz

1. Don’t blame yourself

Feeling responsible for your child’s eating disorder is natural, but it’s very important to remember that anorexia is a highly complex disorder, says Guillaume Walters du Plooy, a clinical psychologist, and head of Eating Disorders South Africa (EDSA). Parents inevitably contribute to their children’s development and growth – that’s part of their role, but blaming yourself is counterproductive. There are many factors involved, including media expectations, peer group pressure, and self-awareness and self-esteem issues, which emerge when kids become teenagers.

2. Do take an active role in treatment

After hospitalisation, standard protocols include therapy for the patient, with parent involvement. “The idea is to ‘cut and paste’ the treatment schedule from the hospital in the home, so there is consistency,” Walters du Plooy explains. Equip yourself by speaking to the attending psychiatrist, your child’s therapist and a dietician.

3. Present a united front

“It’s not uncommon for one parent to take the eating disorder more seriously than the other,” says Walters du Plooy. Both parents need to realise that this is a very serious illness. It’s not a phase. Work together, find out about the disorder together, stay on the same page, and seek outside help if necessary, he advises.

4. Be adaptable… to a point

There should be a certain amount of “flex”, as Walters du Plooy calls it, in the schedule. If, for example, you can’t stick to the agreed time for dinner, make an exception, but get back on track the next evening. Also, if you child refuses to eat a full portion of fruit for instance, ask them for a reasonable explanation. If they can’t give one, it’s important to be firm. You’re disabling your child by enabling them.

Other ways to help

  • Avoid talking about other people’s diets or weight, at mealtimes steer the conversation away from portion sizes, kilojoules and fat content.
  • Build confidence by complimenting them on non-food related achievements.
  • Do give unconditional love and support – even though your child’s behaviour may be unpredictable or difficult to understand.
  • Enjoy non-food related activities as a family – watching a movie or playing a board game after dinner.
  • Be patient.
  • Don’t impose a timetable on your child’s recovery – this is a long process.
  • Do seek professional help if you feel you are not coping or if your marriage is under strain.

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