National Eating Disorders Association
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Parents & Caregivers

With Father’s Day approaching, I can think of no better gift than a conversation with my daughter, Anne. This wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, my conversations with Anne were punctuated by my own frustration and fear. I didn’t understand Anne or her eating disorder. Fearful that I would say something that would upset my daughter, I avoided important topics. We never talked about issues that really mattered to each of us. And yet, we spent lots of time and energy talking.

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A best friend is always there for you. They will make you laugh until you cry, support you through late nights of studying and working, motivate you to not give up, and they’ll come running to your side no matter the time of day. They allow you to let your true colors shine with no shame or judgment. A best friend is your other half; they complete you. 

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During the safety demonstration on airplanes, the flight attendants always remind passengers flying with children to apply their own oxygen mask before they place one on their child. Why? You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Being a caregiver for an individual with an eating disorder is not always an easy task. Your primary goal is to look after that person and provide them with an infinite amount of care, love, and support. It’s important to remember that caregivers also need support and to practice self-care.

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Knowing the right thing to do or say is not always easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating eating disorders. In fact, the “right thing” to say one day may be the “wrong thing” to say the next. It is a challenge both for the individual battling an eating disorder and their support system. 

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With Mother’s Day approaching, I began to think of the moms in my life as well as the moms I treat in my practice. A running theme for many of them is the struggle with balance, happiness, and the demands of motherhood. More often than not, self-care is the one area that moms tend to let fall by the wayside. One reason moms often give me for not taking better care of themselves is that they feel it’s selfish, in addition to being too busy, therefore, putting themselves last.

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My mom has always been one to rescue those in need. One time, in second grade, I got a D on an oral math test. I’ve always been a math whiz, but doing what is now known as “mental math”—you know, doing math in your head instead of on paper— has never been my thing. After getting my test grade, I crawled into my mom’s car at the end of the school day and started crying hysterically. 

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I have been practicing psychotherapy for close to 18 years now. In this time, I’ve focused most of my work on the treatment of eating disorders. Having suffered with an eating disorder in high school, prevention, education, and treatment have become my passion. 

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We want our kids to grow up feeling strong and confident in their bodies. We’ve learned a lot about what to do—and what not to do—to promote a positive body image. We know better than to comment on other people’s weight and engage in diet talk in front of our kids. We model self-care behaviors and teach them values related to diversity in all areas, including body size.

But what happens when our children walk into the world?

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"Dear KJ" is a monthly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012).

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If you are worried about your friend’s eating behaviors or attitudes, it is important to express your concerns in a loving and supportive way. It is also necessary to discuss your worries early on, rather than waiting until your friend has endured many of the damaging physical and emotional effects of eating disorders. In a private and relaxed setting, talk to your friend in a calm and caring way about the specific things you have seen or felt that have caused you to worry. 

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