How Does Your Child's Illness Change Your Family Dynamics
Treating an Eating Disorder and the Family
Imagine you are walking by a lake or a stream. You pick up a pebble and throw it in. As you watch the stone sink, rings spread across the water.
This is the perfect analogy for what happens when your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder. While she is the rock and the center ring is saving her life, what happens to the rest of the family are the ripples around it. Having anorexia, bulimia, or any of the other eating disorders does not occur in a vacuum; the entire family has to deal with it’s ramifications.
No child comes right and says, “Hey Mom and Dad! Guess what? I am throwing my guts up every day!” or “Did you know that I have not eaten a meal in almost a week!”
The exact opposite is true. A person who is suffering from an eating disorder will go out of her way to hide it, as there is a lot of guilt and shame associated with these behaviors.
This issue can be brought to the attention of parents in different ways. Maybe the pediatrician is alarmed at your child’s weight loss or lack of weight gain since her last check-up and starts probing your child with questions during her examination. Perhaps your daughter’s friends confide in you that they are worried and share some of the behaviors they see or what she says. Or those red flags that have been waving in front of your face finally come into focus.
In reality, it does not matter how you discover that your son or daughter has an eating disorder. What matters is getting the help he or she needs so your child can start taking the steps to recovery.
Your child does not walk alone. Her parents and her siblings need to be there, too. But there is also a cost to the family dynamics as you all go through this together.
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Effects of an Eating Disorder on The Parents
Strain on the Marriage Relationship
Once you have learned that your child is suffering from one of the four eating disorders and you have placed her in a treatment program, there is a lot of work to be done. There will be family therapy sessions, nutritional plans to follow, and many, many tears. For every step forward, expect to take a few backwards, as it takes years to recover from an ED.
Of course, if a parent is in his or her right mind, they will feel a tremendous amount of guilt. Did I cause my child’s eating disorder? Why didn’t I see this sooner? Could I have prevented this in the first place?
There are sleepless nights full of worry and tears. You do not understand how this could have happened and why your child wants to hold onto this dreadful disease. Cancer patients willingly accept chemotherapy to eradicate the bad cells in order to become healthy again. But anorexics and bulimics hold their eating disorders tightly and do not want to let them go. Unlike cancer, which is a disease you can see, these children have a mental illness. They can control what they eat and it gives them a feeling of power that they do not want to relinquish-even if it kills them.
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Once the family has entered therapy with their child, there are other stresses to contend with. It may seem heartless to discuss the cost of treating an eating disorder, because after all, there is nothing more important than saving your son or daughter’s life. Can you really put a price on that?
But the reality is that the expense of treatment is an additional stress for the family. Depending on the kind of health insurance coverage the family has, there may be enormous financial costs for helping their child. Eating disorder treatment centers take credit cards and you can go into debt while your child is there.
Parents may argue about tapping into retirement funds or other savings accounts and investments to pay for therapy. There are huge financial penalties for doing this, but the ramifications of not getting the help your child needs are even greater.
In order to attend family sessions at eating disorder treatment centers, time must be taken off from work. In this economy, that may prove to be difficult, yet it is necessary in aiding your child.
Your child’s eating disorder puts an enormous amount of strain on a marriage. It is important to speak to professionals about what is happening so that the collateral damage is not an unhealthy relationship between the both of you.
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The Effects of Eating Disorders on Siblings
Just as parents are effected by the diagnosis of an eating disorder, the other siblings in the family are, too. Depending on their age, their understanding may be limited.
Because there are going to be battles at the dinner table and over any kind of food, children, no matter what age they are, need to be told of their sibling’s condition. Prepare your children for what is to come and share with what this illness is and what the potential outcomes-both good and bad-can be. There can be no sugar-coating of the truth here, as you are dealing with life and death.
Although the experts say that the eating disorder cannot overtake and be the center of your family life, in the beginning, it is and it has to be. Trying to get your child to eat again or not purge what she has eaten is important and can lead to fights at the dinner table. This causes a large amount of stress for all who are seated there. Insisting that your child eats and then she refuses, causing yet another fight, is also a part of what families have to go through, at least at the beginning.
What is supposed to be a happy time-sitting together at the table for a meal-becomes a war zone.
Siblings may also be resentful because all of their parents time and energy is focused on their sick brother or sister. Because an eating disorder treatment center may not be nearby, parents have to travel with their child to get the necessary medical treatment. This may require their other children miss soccer games, music lessons or even parties if carpools cannot be arranged.
Again, finances play a role in family life. Since the cost of treating anorexia and bulimia is so high, cutbacks to family budgets may be necessary. Vacations may be canceled, lessons no longer taken, and regular family activities like going to the movies may have to be postponed until another time.
The best way to combat this resentment is to keep the lines of communication open with your other children. Get them into therapy, too, as this disease is also impacting their lives.
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One way to make sure that your other children are getting the attention they need is to include them in their sibling’s recovery. They can help nurture their ailing brother or sister in a way that their parents cannot. It also makes them feel like they are part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
There is hope for recovery after your child’s eating disorder has been diagnosed. Parents have to make sure that while their son or daughter is getting the help s/he needs, everyone else is, too.
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