When a child is in an eating disorder residential treatment center, calls home can be devastating. A mom reached out to me to ask how to handle them. She’s at the end of her rope, and is ready to jump on a plane and pull her daughter out.
My daughter just entered a residential treatment center in a different state from us. We were so lucky to get her into this program, and jumped at the opportunity when a bed opened up.
But her calls from the residential treatment center are breaking me.
She calls me sobbing and screaming about how mean they are. She says they’re horrible and lock the bathroom doors so she can’t even go to the bathroom in peace. Her complaints, tears, and anger are endless.
I’m ready to jump on a plane and go pick her up right now. Do you think I should?
Oh, Becky, I’m so sorry to hear this. Your story is really common, but that doesn’t make it easy. One of the things that makes it so hard to have a child with an eating disorder is the treatment of eating disorders.
It’s hard – you could even say brutal – to be treated for an eating disorder. And it’s also brutal to be the parent at home, hearing your child’s cries of pain and suffering.
Residential treatment centers aren’t for everyone, but they are really effective for some people.
There is no perfect answer here, so what I’m going to do is slow things down just a little bit so that you can get in touch with your instinct about what is best for your child.
I know the calls from her residential treatment center are hard, but if you can, hold off on getting on the plane today. Let’s give you some tools for handling tomorrow’s call, and you can go from there.
Laying the groundwork
Before we begin, I want you to know that I get this question often, and I know that parents really want the perfect thing to say, the perfect script that will make her feel happy about being in treatment and stop complaining about it.
But to suggest that will happen would be disingenuous. So instead I’m going to give you a way to get through these calls from the residential treatment center with minimum damage to either of you.
This may not sound like much, but it’s actually a lot.
It will make it more likely that she gets what she needs and that you won’t become completely burned out in the process. What I’m going to walk you through is an approach to these calls that is designed to get you in a place of calm confidence.
Because what we feel as parents is more important than what we do or say.
This may feel uncomfortable for you, but I promise that it works.
1. The facts
Before the next call, I want you to start by writing down a list of the reasons you decided that this treatment program was the right choice for her. List every single reason you sent her there. Put them in order of importance. These are your facts.
Next, I want you to come up with an affirmation to remind yourself that you’re learning and growing. Even the best facts won’t help you when you face the fury and fear of an eating disorder.
For that, you need emotional resilience, which can only come from self-compassion.
Here’s an example of a good affirmation: I am doing the very best I can to learn and grow through this. I don’t have to do it all perfectly. I just have to keep trying.
If you’re having a hard time with this, think of what you would say to your best friend if they were facing this problem, and say that to yourself.
About one hour before the call, review the facts once. Then set them aside and focus on your affirmation from now until the call. If you can, go for a walk in nature. Listen to some music. Do a guided meditation and some stretching. Get a long, deep hug from someone who loves you.
4. During the call
Sit on a firm chair with a straight back and both feet planted firmly on the floor. This is a grounded, powerful way to sit. Our minds follow our bodies, so it’s important to situate your body in a way that feels stable and supported.
She is going to do what she’s going to do.
Let’s say that she’s crying and sobbing and telling you that they’re so mean and stupid. When she pauses, rather than defend your decision or pull out the facts, I want you to accept what she says.
Acceptance is not the same as approval.
The difference is important. When you approve of something, it means you’re saying that it is true. But when you accept something, you allow it to exist without judging it as right or wrong.
She may be right or wrong about how she is being treated. But a debate about the facts will accomplish nothing during this call.
So she says something like “they’re so stupid, I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself!”
And you can say “that sounds so hard.”
The important thing about acceptance is that even if she tries to force you to agree with her that they are stupid, you focus on how she’s feeling (not on what they’re doing).
So she may say “don’t you think that’s stupid?”
And you say “well it certainly sounds really hard, and I can understand why you don’t like it.”
Now she may bring out the big one and say “I can’t believe you’re actually leaving me here in this prison!”
And you can say “I love you so much, and I can hear how unhappy you are right now.”
She may not like this, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Throughout the call, maintain your posture, breathe deeply and regularly, and bring yourself back to yourself as many times as you need to.
She may say all sorts of things, but what she needs from you is to be strong in your role as her parent. You’re not here to be her friend, you’re here to protect her and keep her safe.
Take notes about anything she says that makes you question your decision to send her there, but keep your responses focused on validating and accepting her feelings, not whether the treatment center is good or bad.
5. After the call
After the call, take time to regroup. Depending on how you process emotions, take a walk, write, do some yoga, take a nap, or do whatever you can to ground yourself.
Breathe deeply, and repeat your affirmation. Talk to a supportive loved one, coach, or therapist if you need extra support. Find your balance.
6. Make a decision
Now, once you have regained your emotional balance, I want you to pull out your facts and your notes from the call and consider whether anything she said has changed what you know is true.
It might. Your facts are not set in stone. You can always change your mind if you believe that is best for your child. If you do think the facts have changed, then reach out to the center and ask them for an explanation.
At this point, from a calm, centered, and informed place, you can make a choice about your child’s treatment.
And remember that there is no perfect answer here.
Becky, I really, really hope this helps you find some peace.
I know you are doing your very best.
You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.