Unlike many other chronic illnesses, families frequently become very frustrated with their child who has an eating disorder. Once the illness is out in the open, even for supportive families who find sufficient treatment options, it’s hard for families not to resort to blaming their child for not getting better.
Families and loved ones may get angry but don’t blame someone for getting other chronic illnesses yet almost universally blame for someone for not recovering from an eating disorder.
Although the lack of understanding around mental illness can lead to blame, this dynamic is even more pronounced for eating disorders.
The difference can easily be summarized by a common refrain heard in treatment: no one understands. This seeming complaint is actually much more complex and subtle because it hints at the depth of the misunderstanding of eating disorders.
People without eating disorders just eat meals and eat food. Although they may worry about food components and their own weight, eating itself is not a fraught endeavor. People with eating disorders suffer enormous ambivalence, struggle and suffering with every bite of food, even every thought about food. Their entire day is loaded with painful struggles about what to eat or not eat and about their body. The extent of this suffering is unfathomable to even the closest and most educated family members.
So when a child is getting help and trying hard but still slipping regularly in the process of recovery, this is not an example of failure. To the contrary, this is the arduous process of recovery.
During those difficult moments, blame will only serve as another roadblock on the path to getting well. Compassion and love are by far the most helpful responses to the challenges in recovery, even when it is the hardest feeling to summon.
Families need to work hard to avoid blaming their child for an eating disorder. It’s an illness like any other.