Q & A: Helping Parents Who are Caregivers

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2007 Volume 18, Number 3
©2007 Gürze Books

Q: While meeting with parents of patients with anorexia nervosa (AN), several parents have described themselves as ‘totally fried’ by their attempts to care for their adolescents. What do we know about the burden on parents of caring for patients with AN, and how can we help them? (W. S., Plano, TX)

A: You’ve described an extremely common complaint of parents with a child with an eating disorder. This is particularly true for those who are dealing with adolescents still in the throes of AN who are living at home, and in whose care parents are intimately involved. Studies have shown that for parents, caring for an adolescent with AN is as trying and burdensome as it is for parents contending with psychotic adolescents (Soc Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiol 2001; 36:343). Qualitative research has shown that parents, particularly mothers, often have degrees of anxiety that raise clinical concern, as well as overprotectiveness, emotional arousal, and both physical and psychological exhaustion. They may have significant degrees of self-blame and guilt on the one hand and extreme hostility and blaming of the patient on the other (Brit J Psychiatry 2005; 187:444).

Recommended strategies to help include providing parents with their own private time for therapy or counseling (scheduled apart from their adolescent), in which they can ventilate and correct any distorted thoughts and attitudes that may be perpetuating their distress. This may help them reduce their emotional arousal and possibly counterproductive patterns of interacting with their children (which do neither parents nor children any good). Other strategies include connecting them in person or via the Internet with other families who’ve gone through similar ordeals, referring them to websites and reading materials that families often find useful, and generally supporting their efforts at resourceful and more adaptive coping.

— J.Y.

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