As someone who is now recovered from an eating disorder that manifested at age 12, I really feel for your step-daughter right now. It is not only vital that you and your partner get specialist help for your step-daughter, but it is also important for anyone involved in parenting her to learn about how to approach such a sensitive topic, and how their words and behaviours can deeply affect whether her eating disorder gets worse, or whether she starts to recover.
Eating disorder sufferers have very little, or no self-worth. They often believe that their worth is inherrently attached to their weight.
As children, we observe people devaluing themselves based on their weight constantly. We hear people talking about their perpetual diets, losing weight, gaining weight, cellulite, flab, restriction, attractiveness. Seldom do we hear them talk about using food to nourish their bodies and improve their health.
Children need to be taught how to build their own sense of self-worth and their self-esteem. If we teach them that those things are dependent on their weight, their physical appearence and their attractiveness, then that is what they will believe. I didn’t care if I died in pursuit of weight loss, which I believed would give me worth, make me attractive and provide me with happiness.
It’s important to encourage children to value themselves, to teach them how to care for their bodies, to realise that loving and caring for yourself isn’t selfish but neccessary. Parents need to teach that physical appearence doesn’t define our worth, and that food is a tool to nourish our bodies, not a pacifier.
We live in a society where being slim is valued and seen as attractive, while being overweight, obese, or even on the curvier side of healthy is ridiculed. Our society makes value judgements of people based on their weight and appearence, rather than on their words, actions and contributions. It’s not enough to just hide our own unhealthy behaviours and thoughts from our children, we must teach them healthy behaviours.
Additionally, eating disorders can also manifest as a means of control. Children should be allowed to control aspects of their own lives other than just physically eating or not eating. They need to feel they have a say. You can teach your child that what they want matters without them having control over you as a parent. Ask their opinions. Validate them when they make decisions for themselves. Encourage them to speak up if they do or don’t want to do something.
The mother’s behaviour is extremely worrying and is, in my opinion, indicative of an emotionally disfunctional relationship. If she is ok screaming and shouting at her child in the presence of other adults, how does she behave when nobody else is there? Likely, she is nastier to her daughter when there is nobody to witness her behaviour.
I grew up with a father who behaved this way. He belittled me, screamed and shouted at me, made derogatory comments about my weight and appearence, and generally made me feel worthless. He once dumped a plate of bolognese in my lap saying “you don’t need to get any fatter, or no man will ever want you. You’re disgusting”. Regardless of the fact that I was at a perfectly healthy weight for a 17 year old at the time, and deep in the throes of bulimia, language and attitudes such as this are extremely damaging.
Eating disorders must be approached with love, kindness, support and openness. It’s important not to place blame on a child who is experiencing an eating disorder. It is not a choice, it is a coping mechanism. Trying to force her to eat may make her more resitant as it will make her feel that her control is being taken away.
There are some great resources on the internet about how to help your child when they have an eating disorder. Using these accompanied with professional assistance will be hugely beneficial to your step-daughter.
Her dad (and you, if you take an active parenting role) needs to have a discussion with her about how her mother treats her. If her mother is indeed emotionally abusive, then her father needs to remove her from that situation asap.