Today we’re going to hear from a parent who thinks their child’s eating disorder treatment team is not working out. Since this parent is paying for treatment, they would like to insist upon a change. I’ll talk through why this makes sense, but also why they might want to try a different approach.
My daughter has been battling anorexia for six years. She’s now a young adult so I have almost no power over her treatment. She’s seeing an eating disorder treatment team, but they haven’t done anything to change the course of the disease for over two years.
I did some research and it seems like this means we should try a different treatment team. Since we’re paying for the treatment, I feel like I should be able to insist she change to a new team, but I’m nervous that it will set her back in recovery.
What can I do to get her to change teams? Can I just say that I won’t pay for the other team anymore since it’s not working?
Hi Chris! You’ve been on a long journey, and I know how hard this stage of recovery is for parents. Once a child is 18, parents often find themselves still paying the bills but having little influence over treatment and recovery. It can be frustrating, and I understand why you want to step in and change things.
First, it’s important to know that there is unfortunately no magic bullet in eating disorder treatment. Most times, an eating disorder treatment team will struggle to change the course of an eating disorder. This is because it’s a highly individual and complex disorder.
Next, while her team may not be moving her forward in her recovery, they may be keeping her physically and emotionally stable. And that is actually worth a lot. Maintaining a minimum level of health and function may be the team’s short-term goal right now. It’s not nothing.
Of course sometimes changing the eating disorder treatment team can change the course of recovery. But it can actually go both ways. Sometimes the current team provides the safety and stability she needs to recover and a new team will put her backwards. Other times a new team energizes and excites her to move forward. We just can’t know that for sure.
Should you insist?
So knowing there is no perfect answer in terms of which eating disorder treatment team you work with, let’s consider whether you should insist she change teams.
On the one hand, you can! You are paying the bills, so of course you can say you won’t pay for that team anymore but will pay for a new team. That’s well within your rights.
But this is a relationship, not a simple financial transaction. And in any relationship we need to consider the difference between what you can do and what you should do. That’s exactly why you reached out to me, so I know you get this.
Let’s take a look at the difference between control and influence.
Control is something parents do when they make changes in their kids’ lives using their power. For example, when kids are young, parents may move, change their kids’ school, choose their kids’ clothing, and pick a different doctor. All of these choices are appropriate when you have young children.
But as our children grow into adolescence and beyond, things change. Our kids have their own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires. They are not mini-mes, and we can’t dictate who they will become or how they will get there. The best we can hope for is that they’ll keep us along for the journey.
Once they hit 18, our ability to control our kids is greatly diminished. Often the control we do have comes down to the power of money. At the same time, parental control becomes a threat to our kids’ autonomy and their interest in maintaining an emotionally meaningful relationship with us.
I’m sure you already sense this. That’s why you’re hesitant to pull the plug on the current treatment team. Because it’s not just about whether they are doing a good job. This is about how your daughter feels about recovery, whether she’s willing to continue treatment, and also how she feels about you and, by extension, herself.
Because we are our kids’ mirrors. They see themselves through us. So we have to think carefully about what we are reflecting to them.
When we use control, we are reflecting that they are not capable of making their own choices in life. When we use influence, we are reflecting that they are capable and are in charge of their own lives. These are very, very different and will impact both her recovery and your lifelong relationship with your child.
Walking the path
I think of it like this. Our children are walking along their own life paths. When we approach parenting from a control aspect we’re drawing the map and trying to either pull or push them along. We want them to walk this way, not that way; to walk like this, not that; and to connect with these people, not those people.
And while we have all the best intentions when we do this – after all, we know our children so well and believe we know what is best from them – these efforts almost always backfire.
Control most often results in rebellion and disconnection. Kids will become increasingly resistant to our best efforts, which makes it hard going for all of us. Sometimes parents throw up their hands and leave the path entirely, leaving kids alone, feeling abandoned.
With control there’s a cycle of parental over-involvement, a lot of pushing and pulling, and then some form of abandonment – I just can’t handle it anymore!
When we’re in this dynamic, our kids rarely follow our advice wholeheartedly and may even sabotage their own health and wellbeing to maintain a sense of independence and autonomy.
What I suggest is that parents seek influence instead of control. That we find a way to walk beside our children as they walk through life.
Sometimes we may hold their hand, often we listen as they figure things out, but many times we’re just there with our calm presence, staying engaged and curious but not drawing the map or pushing and pulling in any direction.
Our kids know we’re there, but they also know that they are in control of where and how they walk. When we do this, we’ll find that our kids are more likely to turn to us and ask what we think about how they’re walking and where they’re headed.
The thing to know is that when we’re using control, we think we’re putting our kids on the right path. But it’s not. It can’t be. Because it’s our path, not theirs. They will put their heads down, drag their feet, stumble, and be disengaged in the life path we suggest is best for them.
When we use influence – when we walk beside our children – they keep their heads up. They lift their feet and keep walking and create their own vision for a successful life on their own terms. Kids will walk the path they are on, their own lives, with our support and guidance. They seek our support and influence because they have the confidence that nobody is trying to make them do anything. They are in control of their own lives.
How can you walk beside her?
So I’d like you to think about how you can walk beside your daughter through treatment. I’m sure you’re doing this in many ways already. But when you start wanting to control something, such as who she sees for treatment, remember that you will do better if she seeks your input than if you try to control the outcome.
You have the power to insist on a change, but what will the impact of that power be on her recovery and your long-term relationship with her?
On the other hand, if she feels connected and safe with you she will seek your input and accept your influence.
A long road/the long view
This is a much longer and harder road than insisting on the path you think will get her to the outcome you want, which is recovery. Insisting that she change teams, while hard, will be easier than deepening your relationship and building your influence in her life.
But this is the path to healing. When our parents walk beside us with trust and respect that we are drawing the map, taking our own steps, and walking our life path under our own power, we transform our relationship with them and therefore their lives.
Evaluate your relationship
One place to start is to evaluate your relationship right now. The easiest way to know whether you are walking beside her is if she seeks your advice and actively incorporates some of it into her decisions. Or do you give her advice and she resists and ignores it?
Another way to know is whether you feel as if you are in a constant tug-of-war with her or if you feel peaceful and relaxed when you are with her.
If you feel peaceful and relaxed when you are with her, then you can calmly bring up her treatment team and get curious about how she feels about them. From this place, you can hear how she feels, ask her questions, and let her ask you questions.
This is how we positively influence our children’s lives: not by telling them what to do, but by being curious and open to how they feel and what they want to do.
If, on the other hand, you feel like you are in a tug-of-war, or if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels with her, if you notice you are in a cycle of being over-involved and then giving up, then it’s time to try some new skills.
How to build influence
The fastest way to do this is to get coaching or therapy to help you learn to regulate your emotions when you’re with your daughter. Because when your emotions are regulated, she will come into regulation with you. You can also learn active listening, which goes a long way to building influence.
And it is only when we are both emotionally regulated that we can walk on that road alongside our children, supporting but not directing. This is where healing takes place.
To recover from an eating disorder, your daughter has to find her own feet and draw her own map. You may feel you need to either step off the path entirely or tell her what her feet should be doing and which map to use. But instead, you can start walking beside her in calm confidence that she is on the right path because it is uniquely her path.
Chris, I know you have been doing your best all along. I’m so glad you reached out for advice, and I hope that what I’ve said helps you make the best decision for your family right now.
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