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As a parent, helping your child secure help for an eating disorder can be quite a challenge, emotionally and in terms of making changes to your life and your child’s. Even more difficult than the initial treatment process, the aftermath of treatment is rife with pitfalls that can cause a return to disordered eating behaviors. Upon discharging from an eating disorder treatment center, the continuation of proper coping skills and emotional regulation must continue, often for years after the initial treatment process.

Through employing the self-awareness and coping techniques learned during treatment, adolescents can better handle the stressors they’ll face when returning to school without resorting to the same disordered thoughts and behaviors that caused the issue in the first place.In short, continuing to employ healthy coping techniques is an essential part of a full recovery.

The process of becoming and remaining recovered is never perfect and might include new triggers the teen hasn’t faced before. Fortunately, mindfulness practices taught in eating disorder recovery programs can be applied to virtually any stressor or difficult situation, old or new. Parents can help their child avoid these pitfalls and continue in recovery by providing emotional support and helping their child use the practices they learned during treatment.

Understanding the most common pitfalls to avoid, parents can help their kids avoid disordered thoughts and behaviors to remain recovered. Let’s explore a few ways a parent can facilitate and maintain long-term recovery from an adolescent eating disorder.

Avoiding a Return of Disordered Thought Patterns

When and if disordered thought patterns (such as a preoccupation with weight or compulsive eating, for example) return, your teen may face difficulties in remaining recovered. Without the 24/7 assistance and daily therapy sessions that residential treatment affords, it’s not uncommon for disordered thought and behavior patterns to come back. Children often need help continually challenging these thoughts, especially when they’re ashamed to ask for help.

Although occasional negative thoughts are a normal part of growing up, parents should gently seek to promote mindfulness and a sense of comfort in talking about these feelings. Too often, a sense of shame about their eating disorder can lead teenagers to hide their emotions. Without parental acceptance and openness, this shame can lead the child to hide potential relapses.

Duringeating disorder counseling, adolescents learn how to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive ones. Mindfulness training is a big part of this process and can help with challenging these thoughts outside of the treatment center. Parents can also help their childrenutilize mindfulness and other helpful coping skills by participating in the same processes as their kids.  For example, if your daughter is journaling her feelings and is comfortable sharing, you can do the same. This establishes a “no-judgment” baseline that encourages sharing and asking for help.

Avoid Arguing About Feelings; Try to Understand Instead

Parents, especially those who do not have an eating disorder themselves, might try to combat the irrational thinking patterns and behaviors that come with one by using logical arguments like, “You’re not fat, in fact, the doctor says you’re underweight.” Unfortunately, logic does not go very far in getting through to people whose self-identity is irrational in its core. Arguing over these feelings is not only ineffective; it’s counterproductive.

Simply trying to argue the point does very little in helping kids return to healthy thought patterns and behaviors. Instead of trying to debate with your child over her feelings, rather try to listen and put yourself in her shoes. The act of listening, without judgment and without argument, can create a safe space for your child to process her feelings and express them.

You may also reach out to support groups and aftercare programs (which are often provided by the best eating disorder treatment centers for adolescents). They provide resources for both parents and former adolescent patients. Parents can attend these sessions and workshops alongside their child to learn how to provide their support through every stage of recovery.

Promote Healthy Coping Skills to Replace Disordered Ones

After graduating from an eating disorder treatment program, it’s essential to continue to put the positive coping skills learned there to constant use. Children and adolescents face a lot of different stressors that may take a toll if not properly addressed. Without counterbalances like mindful meditation being used, it’s easy for disordered eating behaviors to return to the fore.

Normally, an eating disorder counselor will teach certain coping skills during the course of a recovery program, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or a self-assessment worksheet. When children can match these kinds of healthy emotional regulation skills to their current situation, they are better able to avoid disordered behaviors coming back.

Parents can help their kids use their toolbox and add healthy coping skills as needed to remain recovered. It’s a lifelong process and ultimately, only the child themselves can control their own thoughts and actions – but this comes with time. During adolescence, parents and other caregivers will need to offer guidance and continue to counteract disordered coping behaviors.

Gradually Increase Your Child’s Autonomy…

As kids return home from eating disorder treatment centers, parents often want to respect their space and may give too much freedom too soon. While this is a laudable intention, adolescents returning from treatment, especially a residential program, have often become accustomed to the rigid structure.  They may even come to depend on it to maintain their recovery.

Thusly, upon the initial return to home, parents should set fair boundaries and enforce them, with positive reinforcement techniques used. As they are still learning and developing, children benefit from clear goals and guidelines, as long as they aren’t too strict or unfair. As the post-recovery phase continues and the adolescent gets accustomed to their daily life at school and during extracurriculars, parents should gradually decrease the firmness of these guidelines and promote their child’s autonomy.

Parents need to remain watchful in identifying any disordered thought patterns or behaviors that may return. Noticing this problem right away can help ensure children and adolescents receive the continued support they need to eliminate these patterns. For these reasons, parental involvement will remain paramount in helping kids with eating disorders remain recovered over the years.

… But Don’t Leave Them Without Guidance

Eating disorder treatment centers teach many coping skills and set emotional guidelines that adolescents can use to maintain their own recovery, but adolescents (or adults, for that matter) do not always have the willpower or self-confidence to use them effectively. Parents should stay involved in their kid’s recovery as well as their school and social life. From time to time, this will mean setting a firm framework that guides the child’s activities. With this framework, kids can work with their toolbox of coping skills in managing stress while completing normal daily activities.

In some cases, having a set of guidelines to depend on in times of stress can be a lifesaver, including real-life situations that bring up any associated eating disorder triggers. The framework guides their choices and takes the fear of the unknown out of the equation. Importantly, parents should be firm but never punitive or cruel – harsh punishments will only erode the trust you’ve developed with your kid.

Don’t Push Too Hard for a Quick Fix

It’s tempting to think that a month or more of constant supervision and therapy at a residential eating disorder treatment center will become a kind of miracle cure or quick fix. An eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder is a complex and pervasive mental health illness which can’t be treated once and cured like the flu.There needs to be a gradual return to full responsibility and continued guidance every step of the way.

Pushing forward too soon and too quickly might have the unfortunate effect of undoing all the progress made at the treatment center. Children and adolescents with eating disorders benefit from gaining independence slowly while remaining responsible for themselves. Don’t push them too hard to gain that independence, however. It’s the parents’ responsibility to keep an outsider’s perspective and continue to offer support until their child is ready to stand on her own two feet.

The treatment center your daughter attended most likely has an aftercare program with resources for parents and other family members – take advantage of those. They can help guide you about when to be firm and when to ease the reins a bit. With time, this approach helps children learn how to become fully responsible for their health and wellbeing without counteracting the lessons gleaned from eating disorder treatment.

Take Advantage of the Resources Available to You

We really can’t stress this enough – let the professionals help you; after all, that’s what we do. The counselors, nurses, doctors, and other experts at the treatment facility have decades’ worth of experience in dealing with eating disorders; they want to make sure their ministrations have taken effect and they want to see their clients get better and stay better.

Eating disorder treatment centers offer their alumnae continued opportunities for support that assist them in remaining recovered. These resources are normally part of the standard aftercare program and include educational workshops, alumnae gatherings, and emotional support during times of crisis.

These educational and support-based opportunities allow teenagers in recovery to continue on the path to full recovery. Digital workshops, for example, allow kids and parents to explore well-defined topics that directly address their challenges and the leading solutions.

For many people who’ve recovered from an eating disorder, alumni gatherings and maintenance sessions are a key lifeline. In fact, there are many parents-only group sessions available, separate from the adolescents who are recovering. Children may attend therapy sessions alongside other alumnae and without their parents for individualized support.

As a parent, you might feel that ultimate responsibility for your child’s recovery falls on you – and it does. That’s why you should make sure to take advantage of every resource you have to keep it going. There’s no shame in reaching out for help.

The Last Word Is the First Step

Hopefully, some of these pointers will help you support and guide your teenager to a full and long-term recovery from their eating disorder. It’s never an easy path to address a complex and dangerous behavioral health disorder – recovery can take months or years, and relapse is always a concern.

The most important thing a parent can do to facilitate this difficult transition is the first thing they should do. What is this first step? Asking a professional for help.  This might be as simple as asking your family doctor or a therapist for their medical or psychiatric opinion, or you may reach out to the admissions specialists at an eating disorder treatment center like Clementine. In either case, it’s important for parents to know that eating disorders don’t simply go away on their own.  Only with your guidance and support will your child have the best chance at achieving a full recovery – so don’t wait.  Reach out for help as soon as possible.

 

Carrie Hunnicutt

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.