National Eating Disorders Association
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Navigating an Education When Your Child has an Eating Disorder

Suzanne Oliver

When our daughter developed an eating disorder at 15, her educational trajectory was suddenly no longer predictable or inevitable.  She stopped completing assignments, and often lay in bed refusing to go to school.  In one year’s time she went from being a straight-A student playing two varsity sports to a student with 21 absences and two incompletes in her 10th grade year.  In addition to making important decisions about our daughter’s health care, we had to rethink her education.  In both areas – health care and school – there were conflicting recommendations and no clear, best path in sight.

Schools are designed like ladders, moving students from one grade to the next in predictable, measured intervals.  Recovery from an eating disorder, on the other hand, is more like a knotty rope.  Sometimes you’re climbing, but just as often it seems you are stuck in the knots that lead you sideways, even backwards, before you start climbing again.  That knotted rope of ED recovery doesn’t naturally conform to the ladder of education.  As parents of a student with an eating disorder, it felt like we were always negotiating, either with our daughter, with her school, or with her treatment team about what was the best educational choice  -- a deadline extension, extra time, a therapeutic boarding school, repeating a grade, home school, a gap year?  Nothing occurred in the predictable pattern, yet decisions had to be made with the hope that some day a predictable pattern would again be part of her life.  We just didn’t know when.

While our daughter’s treatment team endorsed the idea of school – after all, they were all educated – they were in disagreement about the right type. When our daughter fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, her medical doctor counseled she should stay home and rest when she wasn’t in treatment, meanwhile her therapist advised that she should stay in school because she needed the structure of the school day, the peer interaction, and the hard lesson of overcoming perfectionism that school would offer.   An educational consultant suggested a variety of therapeutic boarding schools and adventure programs, while our daughter simply refused to leave home.   The fact that her two younger siblings woke up and went to school each day seemed a minor miracle in comparison.  Nothing could be taken for granted.

That year tenth grade deadlines were extended through the summer, but when fall arrived, the work was incomplete.  Disordered thinking occupied our daughter’s brain to the exclusion of almost everything else.   She was anxious, depressed and begging for what she called a “gap year.”   Overwhelmed, we called to withdraw her from school, but our daughter’s independent school, where she had been since kindergarten, wouldn’t let us cut the ties so easily.  They believed in our daughter’s potential to recover and resume her life as the student she had previously shown herself to be – an engaged and energetic leader in the classroom.   The head of the school said to us, “Your daughter is an important part of this community.  We believe she is going to go on to do great things.”  With the assistance of a local, accredited tutoring school, they helped us map some time off for intensive outpatient therapy along with home schooling and a return to 11th grade in the spring.

We had found our way out of the knots for a while, and our daughter’s ED symptoms improved.  But she still wasn’t steady on the education ladder.   As the fall of 12th grade approached, she was overwhelmed by the prospect of applying to college, and she stopped doing the work in a summer school class she needed to enter 12th grade.   It was time again for unconventional thinking.  We looked at school alternatives that would allow our daughter to repeat 11th grade and also talked to her current school about what options they could offer.  After meeting with administrators there, the school offered to make space for our daughter as a “hybrid” student, essentially giving her an extra year of high school without repeating any one subject.  Fortunately there were enough courses to make this possible.   They gave her the option of being in the 11th or 12th grade homerooms and the promise of an extra year to complete high school.  Our daughter chose the 11th grade homeroom since that was the graduation path she would be on. 

The decision to stay behind a grade was difficult as it separated her further from the friends she had made over 12 years at the school.  It was painful for her to watch old classmates don their college sweatshirts during acceptance season.   However, she made a few friends in her new grade and fought to complete college applications and her academic work as she continued to be affected by disordered eating.   Deadlines and absences continued to be a problem.  There were stretches of productivity and happiness followed by weeks of depression and falling behind. In all this, our daughter’s school advisor was a savior. She worked hard to support our daughter by both negotiating deadlines for her, then doing her best to hold her to them.   Often it was difficult to know whether this deadline flexibility was perpetuating the disordered behavior or enabling the recovery.

This spring our daughter proudly graduated from high school.  Three weeks later, she asked to go to a residential treatment program.  We had been offering this for years, but had never forced it on the advice of a therapist who had said, “Residential doesn’t work unless the patient wants to go.”  Now, at last, she was choosing it.   She came back six weeks later more confident and happy than we had seen her in years.  

 In August we packed the car in hopeful anticipation that her academic life was returning to normal, that she would enjoy a happy and productive freshman year in college.  Her residential program had identified an appropriate therapist near the college.  The college itself had an ED recovery support group, and there were easily accessible 12-step meetings she could attend.   The first three weeks were like a honeymoon.  Then, the familiar cycle of anxiety and disordered eating returned.  This time, our daughter refused to muscle through.  She took ownership of her recovery, meeting with her school dean to arrange a medical leave and choosing a treatment center with a transitional program that she believes will help her continue to build the strength of mind and habit that are necessary for her to comfortably resume her life as a student.  She wrote to me,  “Recovery is on its own timetable, and I’m going to actually listen to it for once and not try to rush my life just because of my ego or societal pressure.”

As a parent, I have conflicting emotions about her decision. It is difficult to let go of the grief I feel for what seems like lost years for her.  Her high school experience was not what I had dreamed it would be. She hasn’t had enough happiness.  I also fear for her future.  But those emotions come when I am focusing on the knots instead of on the direction of her climb.  She is getting better.  She is choosing health and gaining independence -- both from her disease and from us as parents.   She made responsible arrangements for her return to school, and I am filled with admiration and hope for her and the choices she is making.