Parent Traps

Eating Disorders are brilliant at tricking people. Parents and carers can often find themselves falling into traps.

“Accommodation” is something that can happen to anyone. It’s when a person (parent, carer, friend or professional) “accommodates” the eating disorder in some way. It may be changing a normal way of life in order to inadvertently support odd eating disorder demands. It can often come from a good place such as buying a certain brand of food because you know it’s easier for the person – therefore, “accommodating” the eating disorder for that person.

The traps below are very common and were all described by parents involved in developing this website. These parents and carers stated that they wish they had known these at the start of their loved one’s treatment.

  • Shopping for the Eating Disorder
    You might find yourself buying particular types of foods or specific brands. You might do this because it’s the only thing your loved one says they will eat or if you have given them something else they have become very distressed. This food will be “safe” – pre-approved by the eating disorder.
    This is a trap. This is how the eating disorder controls you and your loved one. Food is not scary and by shopping for the eating disorder, it is inadvertently reinforcing the idea that it is. Also, not supporting your loved one in learning that they can experience the distress of trying something scary and develop healthy coping strategies to manage this.
  • Small portions
    You may find yourself giving your loved one a portion that is smaller than they would have had before the eating disorder, or smaller than the rest of the family has. You might feel it’s not enough but better than nothing and “at least they are eating something”. This can reinforce anorexic thinking – “they are giving me less because that’s all I need”, “that’s a normal portion”, etc. If you know that it is not enough, give them more. You can do this.
  • Safe foods
    Like shopping for the eating disorder, this is another way it stays in control. Safe foods may be things like vegetables or a certain brand of cereal or bread. It could also involve eating in a restrictive way which was not present prior to the eating disorder. For example, a “trick” of the eating disorder is to cut back on certain food groups, such as becoming vegan or the eating disorder convincing someone that they have a food intolerance.
  • Activity
    Eating disorders can cause a strong desire to move around or be active that can be hard to resist. It may be as little as standing on the bus instead of sitting. An eating disorder will look for any excuse to move. This is to burn energy (calories). Sometimes an eating disorder can trick someone into extra movements like offering to take the bin out. A person may feel compelled to do this for various reasons: the eating disorder is telling them they need to move for lots of horrible reasons, like they are too “fat”, or it may be telling them they do not deserve to rest. For younger children, it may feel more like an overwhelming agitation to move rather than the “need to burn energy”. The trap is allowing or accepting this extra movement or exercise, particularly during weight restoration stage. Things like; allowing them to stand when it would be normal to sit, or not challenging the fact they are staying up later and later (to be more active). Activity and exercise is often viewed as “healthy” within our society however, when the drive behind this is an eating disorder, your loved one is not in control. You may need to support your loved one not to engage in this extra movement or exercise; recognise it as the eating disorder and develop strategies to tolerate or manage these urges.
  • Not mentioning that thing you pretended you didn’t see
    Something dropping onto the floor, the hurried rush to the bed and flushed face when entering a room (exercise?!), unblocking the toilet or refilling the cupboards before the rest of the family notice food is missing.
    The eating disorder is getting more powerful while the young person feels like no one is noticing it.
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