National Eating Disorders Association
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What Our Children’s Eating Disorders Meant for Our Parenting

Nancy Hemendinger, The Parent, Family & Friends Network (PFN) Steering Committee

For many years, the reality we lived in was one of fear; fear that ED would take the lives of our daughters. Would they be alive at Christmas or their next birthdays? As morose as that sounds, that is the reality of being parents or family members of someone with an eating disorder. We were at battle with ED and every day that they were still on this earth, we had the opportunity to find a way through the fog ED created.

When ED intruded into our family, our hopes and dreams envisioned for our daughters’ lives became a distant memory. We struggled to acknowledge and accept that all of our lives would be different. We were on an unknown and dark path of fear, frustration, and at times, hopelessness.   

Our first ray of hope came in the form of professionals who understood the illness and its effects, not only on those suffering, but also on the family. The guidance of our therapist on how not to enable the eating disordered behaviors was a painful and frustrating challenge. However, it was essential to their recoveries. 

We stopped answering the ED question “Am I fat…?” No matter how frustrated my daughters were or how fearful of foods, we would not answer that question. Initially, that was difficult because their ED mindsets would cause great frustration. If we had continued to answer the “Am I fat…?” question, their EDs would tell them that we were lying. 

ED had convinced them that with each morsel of food eaten, their bodies would instantly increase in size. We were able to empathize with their fears by thinking what it would be like living 24/7 with something that petrified us. We found re-directing or hugging them to be the best ways to support our daughters. 

We gave up the natural instinct of parents to nourish their children. As much as ED taunted us, we would not become the food police. We learned very quickly that nourishing our daughters was now the medical professionals’ job. At times, we battled with the feelings of failure for not being able to do what most parents did every day: provide food and nourishment to keep their children alive.

So what could we do as parents of daughters with eating disorders?

We continued to share our feelings and concerns for their wellbeing with them. We made it clear that they were battling a serious illness and they were worthy of treatment and a life free from ED.  We explained why they needed the medical and psychological support. We gave ourselves a break for the many times that we were manipulated into the ED world. We focused on separating our daughters from their eating disorders. 

Our strength came in the form of reading reliable articles and studies on the NEDA website and following the medical and mental health professionals’ advice. It was as if we were learning how to be parents for the first time. 

ED’s presence did not exit from our family suddenly. Recovery and freedom from ED was a slow and painful process. Recovery came in small doses. We began to recognize recovery when ED wasn’t intruding in our family meals and celebrations or when we vacationed. There have been times when ED seems to begin to sneak back into our lives. We understand when this happens; we need to be attentive with our communication patterns, coping skills, and staying firm in our recovery.   

We are changed by our experiences and suffering with ED. Our hopes and dreams are different from the ones that we had prior to our battles with ED. As a result of ED’s attack and ultimately ridding ED from our lives, we are stronger as individuals and as a family. As the late Robert H. Schuller said, “What appears to be the end of the road may simply be a bend in the road.”