I’ve yet to meet a parent who found dealing with anorexia in their own child a breeze. When I was very ill with anorexia my mother adopted the ‘head in the sand’ approach – if you ignore it, it will go away. Janet Treasure¹ and her team refer this coping style as the ‘ostrich’. When she was forced to acknowledge the problem, my mother’s frustration was evident, but perfectly understandable. Mothers instinctively feed their babies, even when they are adults, so a child refusing food is painful. Fathers and other significant others suffer too. Recently ITV newsreader Mark Austin spoke about his struggle to cope with his daughter’s anorexia. Whilst working as a nurse supporting young sufferers of anorexia and their parents, I was witness to many parenting struggles in relation to the eating disorder. I found Janet Treasure’s animal analogies very helpful.
She notes that the Ostrich approach my mother took, whilst being helpful in avoiding volcanic outbursts of emotion, can be mis-interpreted by the sufferer as a lack of concern. This has the effect of sapping self esteem and often leaves the sufferer feeling uncared for and unloved. It can also seem like an acceptance of anorexia – permission to carry on, and can send out an unhelpful message that emotions must be concealed. Far better, says Treasure, to set an example of articulating and expressing emotions in a controlled but honest way, thereby helping the sufferer to learn how to express their own emotions using words rather than food.
The Jellyfish is another of her analogies. Jellyfish tend to have too much emotion and too little control over it. Perhaps they have high expectations of themselves as parents and /or feel that they are in some way to blame. Tiredness and stress can also lead to emotional ‘meltdowns’ and dealing with anorexia can certainly be stressful. Regardless of why a parent might react like a jellyfish, the behaviour tends to be reflected in the sufferer, leading to exhaustion in all parties and the eating disorder becomes a lifeboat for the sufferer to cling to in a sea of turbulent emotions.
Parents or carers who behave like Kangeroos tend to protect the sufferer a little too much for their own good. The sufferer is allowed to ‘hop back into the pouch’ whenever they are faced with anything they find stressful or upsetting. Consequently, they never learn the skills to deal with the inevitable challenges of life, and are often suspended in some sort of childlike cocoon, unable to advance into adulthood. I found quite a few kangaroo pouches to hide in over the years, which made life with anorexia more bearable, comfortable even, and gave me little motivation for change.
Quite the opposite to kangaroo parenting is the approach of the Rhinoceros, who confronts the eating disorder with force and logic. Often the sufferer will retaliate with eating disorder ‘logic’, and the eating disorder becomes more entrenched, or there is reluctant compliance with little conviction to continue and sustain change under their own steam.
Terriers persistently cajole and nag the sufferer, often appearing to be critical. Imagine a little dog following you around, yapping and snapping at your heels – annoying! This is a very exhausting approach for all involved, and sufferers tend to feel like they are failing, rather than feeling encouraged and supported.
Treasure emphasises that none of these animal analogies are intended to be critical. They offer a lighthearted view of natural responses to very difficult circumstances, and examine them in terms of whether they are helpful or not. It might be that one of these styles is your default way of coping, but you might find yourself swinging from one style to another in a desperate attempt to put things right. The analogies are intended to help you reflect upon your own response to the eating disorder, what effect your response is having upon yourself and those around you (including the sufferer), and whether you need to challenge yourself by trying a different style of responding.
You might want to try responding like a dolphin, gently nudging your loved one along as they flounder in the sea of life. Imagine the eating disorder is their life jacket and they will not take it off until they are confident in the water. You can swim ahead to show the way, alongside to offer encouragement, or follow quietly behind whilst they find their own way. You are reliably there, showing just enough care and control. A St Bernard is also very dependable, even in the very worst of conditions. They are always attuned to the welfare and safety of those who are lost and in danger, as so many sufferers are, responding calmly and gently to bring warmth and to instil hope. I think this is my favourite analogy – everyone needs a St Bernard in their life!
So, the message to parents is: It isn’t easy by any means, and nobody gets it right all of the time.
Ask yourself: How am I responding to this? Are my responses working for me / others? What, if anything, could I do differently? What help do I need?
Contact me if you are a parent / carer who would like any help and support
¹ Janet Treasure is a British Psychiatrist who specialises in research and treatment of eating disorders. You can read more about her work here.