Being the dad or step-dad of someone with an eating disorder presents particular challenges – whether you are a single dad managing your child's eating disorder alone, part of a partnership or an ‘estranged’ dad. Fathers often describe their reaction to the eating disorder as one of incredulity mixed with anger.
“I could see the problem and I just wanted to fix it. I know my attempts came out all wrong with quite a lot of aggression and I was a bit of a rhino really, but I saw myself as head of the family with a child who was slipping into danger and yet who wouldn’t (or couldn’t as I appreciate now) listen to me.”
Fathers are often trying to keep the home going as normal and trying to go to work as usual, however difficult it is to ‘keep their mind on the job’.
“My career and our livelihood were in danger. I wasn’t able to concentrate and give my job my usual commitment when our son was ill. I also had to take a lot of time out for his appointments and family therapy sessions. My wife needed a lot of extra support from me too, so too my other kids which put considerable strain on me. I admit to dreading coming home and staying late at the office because the atmosphere was so fraught at home. In all honesty I wanted to avoid facing mealtimes with my son and a home life which was out of control.”
If you are a dad trying to cope with an eating disorder then do accept that you will probably react in a very different way from your partner. Find somewhere you can take these emotions and express them, so that you are more likely to be able to hold it together when you are at home. Your role may well be crucial – research suggests that the way dads respond to therapy and treatment for eating disorders can be very important. However, talking and approaches such as family therapy may be very alien to you and rather difficult at first. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do and don’t be afraid to admit your limitations.
Sometimes the relationship between dads and professionals can be difficult. Some dads have reported that they felt people were suspicious of them or felt that their behaviour or responses were monitored. Others have found that when they reacted with anger, they were suspected of being abusive or overly aggressive. Remember that anxiety, fear or even the urge to cry can come out as anger and aggression. Try not to feel paranoid, but it is essential that you stay controlled.
If you're a concerned dad or step-dad and would like some support, you can contact ABC's Parent's Services or make an online chat appointment with Joanna at our weekly Support Hub (Thursdays). Joanna has personal experience of supporting her daughter through Anorexia and offers guidance, ideas for coping strategies, ways to manage meal times and family situations, or just to listen to your concerns. Find out more and make an appointment with Joanna here.