My daughter, Ana, was diagnosed with an eating disorder when she was 14 years old. She began struggling in the spring of 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic, when there was a dramatic rise in eating disorders among teenagers. After her diagnosis, I immediately began reading everything I could about eating disorders —why they happen, and why they are so misunderstood. Here are a few things I learned that I hope will help other parents.
- The roots of eating disorders aren’t always about dieting.
Eating disorders (ED) can sometimes be misunderstood as “extreme diets.” It is true that dieting, body image, and societal pressures play a role in the development of EDs, but the roots of the illness are often tied to something more complicated.
As she transitioned toward adolescence, Ana started struggling with anxiety and depression, and her eating disorder became a way for her to cope with the challenges that life was throwing at her. This is a common occurrence for those suffering from these illnesses. At a time when much is uncertain, eating disorders can be a way for a teenager to exert some control over their life. The reasons why an ED develops are different for everyone, but they are complex, and often have biological, developmental, and environmental causes.
- The first noticeable signs of an eating disorder may be related to your child’s behavior — not how much they are eating.
One of the first signs that alerted me that something was wrong was Ana’s total disconnection from her family, which was unlike her. She was withdrawn, and every interaction I had with her was tense. Even her conversations with her younger sister, who she usually adored, were combative. It may be easy to brush these behaviors off as “normal teenagerhood,” but don’t — dig a little deeper. You know your child and will notice when they suddenly become a stranger.
Ana’s exercise routine also changed. She became very distressed if she missed her workout for any reason, and a few times, I found her working out in the middle of the night. These changes — along with changes in Ana’s eating habits — were what motivated me to seek out treatment for her.
- Blaming yourself is not helpful.
Parents have to be compassionate toward themselves. If your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, you are not to blame, just as you would not be to blame if your child developed diabetes or another physical illness. The causes are complex, and there is not one set of rules a parent can follow to prevent their children from developing an eating disorder.
The most important thing you can do is be involved in your child’s recovery and offer them love and compassion, not dwell on the past. While it might be very hard to deal with the immense anxiety of the recovery process, the best thing is to continue to love and support your child for who they are, through illness and challenges. Make sure you have a support system for yourself and engage in self-care, so you can be there for them without exhausting your own batteries.
- Recovery is long, and it is not linear.
When Ana was diagnosed, she had to slow down considerably and focus on getting better. Even though she was used to being at the top of her class, her priority immediately had to become her health — not school. Many parents, myself included, hope their child can be treated quickly and fully return to sports and school immediately, however, in most cases, initial treatment requires total focus and time. Ana had to receive outpatient treatment and be hospitalized, and we experienced numerous setbacks during her journey. Not rushing the process was key in achieving good results.
- Recovery is possible.
Despite the many ups and downs we had during Ana’s treatment, a return to a healthy, full life is possible with treatment. While eating disorder recovery is still an active part of Ana’s life, she has been able to return to school, sports, and connect with her family and friends again. One of the most important things that helped Ana regain trust in herself and her purpose in the world was getting involved in volunteering activities that were meaningful to her. In the fall, she will head to college.
Learn more about eating disorders and the signs you should look out for here. If you’re concerned about your child, consider reaching out to their pediatrician or the team at Golisano Children’s Hospital for help. The sooner an individual receives treatment, the more likely it is they will make a full recovery.