I often get asked about what parents or loved ones can do to support their child/partner during meal times. Meals can be really tricky when you are supporting someone because there are so many emotions coming up for the individual struggling and it can feel like every move we make ends up creating more anxiety instead of less.
Support tends to look different for everyone and what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. Even in my practice, one of my recommendations can cause someone to turn a major corner in their journey to recovery and that same recommendation may fall completely flat on the next person who walks through my door. This could not be more true when it comes to meal support. So what I would recommend is that you go straight to the source and get suggestions from your child. Ask her what it is she feels she needs to make mealtime easier for her. Does she need lots of conversation or to eat on her own? Does she do better with distractions or is it healthier for her to focus on what is in front of her? Does she want people to talk about food, or avoid the topic all together? Your child will be the expert on what is helpful. She may struggle to actually get through the meal but what she finds helpful only she will know.
Often when parents try to ask their children these questions they get faced with resistance and either a disinterest or flat out refusal to talk about it altogether. If this is the case, I would recommend that you encourage your child to engage in her recovery journey by saying something like this:
“I know that your eating disorder is really challenging for you and that some days it can feel really overwhelming. I don’t want to add to the challenges and anxiety by supporting you in a way that is more hurtful than helpful. As a family, our focus is your recovery and I would really appreciate it if you could take some time to think about what I/We can do to help make mealtime easier for you. I trust that you know best and we are willing to change things around to make mealtime more manageable. If you don’t know right now, that is okay, but I will check back in with you in a few days so that we can be on the same page.”
I would encourage you to keep checking in until you get some answers. Your child may not know off the top of her head and she may not want to give you the answers even if she does know. In this case, let her know that you will plan meal time based on what you believe is best and she can clarify what does and doesn’t work for her. She doesn’t have to have all the answers, but allowing her to not participate in her own healing journey gives the eating disorder more room to run the show.
Be aware that you may have to change how mealtime typically looks. If you are used to sitting around a table together and she finds this particularly challenging, you may have to adjust some things to make it easier. As she gets better you can work on adjusting things back to what you feel aligns with your family values about sharing meals together.
Mealtime is often a very challenging and triggering time for someone who is working on recovering from an eating disorder. Talking about what your child needs will bring you and her closer to tackling the disorder in a way that may be uncomfortable but that is still manageable. Let your child know that you trust her to make healthy decisions and that you want her to guide you because she knows what works best. Remember to never align with the eating disorder (she can’t miss meal time, or only choose to eat eating disorder safe foods) but do give her the freedom to act on her own behalf and ask for what she needs. Mealtime is tricky for everyone involved. Listen to your child and the boundaries she sets so that she can be successful.