Written by: Ashley Moser, LMFT, CEDS (she/her/hers) Clinical Education Specialist, The Renfrew Center
The discovery of a loved one’s eating disorder has an emotional impact on the entire family. Parents, in particular, often experience a sense of guilt, shame and responsibility due to their role. While understandable, these emotions can negatively impact parents in their ability to participate in the recovery process. In this post, we will explore the experience of parental guilt in response to eating disorders and how to move through those feelings to effectively support recovery.
Parental guilt in response to the discovery of an eating disorder is common. Parents feel responsible for the wellbeing of their children and question where they went wrong and what they have done or missed that could have contributed to issues that arise. This is often reinforced by societal messages and in the case of eating disorders, stereotypes about the role of parents in the development are especially prevalent.
In contrast to these messages, organizations from around the world have published research and materials that conclude parents do not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex with no single cause. There are a wide range of factors that influence the development and the maintenance of an eating disorder. Some factors are listed below, but not limited to:
Even with this knowledge, parental guilt can still be experienced. Guilt is a normal and functional emotion, however many struggle with this feeling. Guilt tells us when we have done something wrong and drives us to fix or amend our mistake. In the case of parents and eating disorders, by blaming themselves, they then experience guilt which drives them to try to fix the problem. At a quick glance, that sounds helpful. But upon closer look, help driven by guilt can have unintended consequences.
Parental Responses to Eating Disorders
Let’s take a look at what frequently happens when guilt drives parental behavior. Based on the work of Dr. Janet Treasure, PhD & colleagues, when experiencing guilt, shame and blame parents may respond in the following ways:
The Kangaroo Response: Parents respond by protecting and accommodating. They manage the emotions of the child by making them feel better. In the case of eating disorders, parents lack accountability and have difficulty with firmness and boundaries which are needed to eliminate symptom use.
The Rhinoceros Response: Parents respond by arguing with reason and logic and attempt to take control. This response can result in conflict and if any change occurs it is usually due to fear. In the case of eating disorders, parents lack the attention to the emotional factors and can become ‘food police’.
The Ostrich Response: Parents respond by ignoring, avoiding, disconnecting, and isolating. They hope the behaviors resolve on their own or feel they do not know what to do. In the case of eating disorders, parents lack the connection, awareness and acknowledgement which can lead to the child feeling ‘not sick enough’ to warrant concern.
The Jellyfish Response: Parents respond by lashing out with emotional reactivity. Their emotions become the primary focus and detracts from the child. In the case of eating disorders, this response from parents reinforces their child’s desire to keep their struggles a secret to prevent being ‘stung’. The above responses, while not intended, can maintain eating disorder behaviors, which is why it is so important to be aware of feelings of parental guilt.
How to Let Go of Guilt
If you find yourself or someone you know responding in the above ways, it is likely that they may be experiencing guilt, shame or blame for contributing to the development of their child’s eating disorder. Parents are human too and may struggle with knowing how to respond to negative emotions, not only in their children, but also in themselves.
So how do you let go of parental guilt? While easier said than done, moving through guilt is possible and vital so that parents can show up effectively as recovery supports. Here are a few ways to address parental guilt.
Normalize it: Guilt is a very common experience for parents whether it is in response to the discovery of their child’s eating disorder or any other issue that arises in their development. Normalizing this emotion takes away some of the additional shame experienced.
Feel it: While guilt is an uncomfortable emotion, it is functional and a part of the human experience. Efforts to suppress or avoid the guilt will typically result in the above mentioned ‘animal model’ behaviors. The recommendation then is, to feel it. To allow guilt to be experienced in the mind and in the body. Acknowledge that it is showing up because you care about your child and are worried that you may have contributed to their eating disorder behaviors. While this is not true, it may feel that way. The experience of guilt will dissipate over time the more comfortable we are experiencing it.
Connect over it: Find other parents who can relate. Having a community of other parents who are navigating recovery support can be incredibly healing, especially the experience of guilt. Even if there are not other parents readily available to connect over eating disorders in particular, many are facing similar challenges in supporting children with mental health concerns. Being vulnerable and seeking connection can provide support so that parents can then in turn be supportive.
Ask for help with it: Seeking therapy for parental guilt can have many benefits. If your child is receiving support from a treatment team or provider, ask for referrals for therapists who can focus on your emotions and your needs. Being a parent is hard and supporting a child with an eating disorder is not easy. Having support in your personal corner can only help you and the process.
How to Help More Effectively
As parental guilt dissipates, it allows for more effective recovery support. In keeping with the ‘animal models’, here are the behavioral responses of parents able to be helpful in the recovery process:
The Dolphin Response: Parents respond by coaching, gently persuading and nudging their child towards safety and recovery. They swim alongside their child, take the lead when necessary and allow their child to swim ahead when they’re ready to do so.
The St. Bernard Response: Parents respond by being steady, calm, empathic and loyal. They are emotionally focused and model tolerance of negative emotions with their own emotion regulation. Parents who tolerate and navigate their guilt are then able to lead their child through this process by modeling. We know that people heal by being seen, heard, and validated. Parents who are emotionally regulated can do just that.
Parental guilt is to be expected in the discovery of a loved one’s eating disorder and requires attention to allow parents to be effective recovery supports. It is important to keep in mind that no parent intentionally responds in ways that could maintain the disorder, however, when guilt is left unaddressed, the consequences can be just that. Letting go of guilt can be much easier said than done but can be accomplished by being normalized, felt, connected to others and in receiving help.
The Renfrew Center is here to help. If you are someone you know is struggling to be an effective recovery support, there are resources and services available.
Here are a few ways The Renfrew Center supports parents:
Support Persons Groups and Services