Parenting a Child with Anorexia

Julia was only thirteen when she was diagnosed with anorexia, depression, and anxiety: the trifecta of mental illness, as I called it. I spent far too much time trying to figure out how and why it happened; after all, I was the stay-at-home mother by choice and with all that daily love and experience I was giving my children, I should have seen the signs and intervened. But more often than not, parents aren’t to blame for mental illness, as was the case for my wife Susan and me.

Mental illness is a result of biological, psychological, and social factors, and if they collide in a certain way, illness strikes. Julia was a sweet and quirky kid who had some issues with food, could behave impulsively, was an overachiever, and grew up in a home and society where the bar was set high, none of which was out of bounds for what to expect of kids. When the crisis hit, it hit hard and fast and turned our lives upside down. One day, Julia was off to start eighth grade, the next day, she was refusing to eat at home, and the third day, a crisis unit was called in to her middle school. From that moment on, Susan and I were mostly on our own to navigate the hell of Julia’s mental illness. She was ours to save if we could just figure out how.

From the start, we took all the obvious actions to improve our odds of helping Julia, including educating ourselves on anorexia, finding and getting her into quality programs with established clinicians, trying many medications to ease her discomfort, and fighting for our rights with our school district and health insurance. Then came the really hard part; we had to change our expectations and ways of thinking and behaving and take action with a strength we’d never tapped into before. Anorexia, we quickly learned, is a tricky illness, so we knew we had to be united to effectively fight it.

We committed to unconditional love and determination against grim odds: only 20% of those with anorexia experience full recovery whereas 20% will take their lives. We found little bits of hope to latch onto along the way, one of which was a book titled The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz that we were required to read for one of Julia’s programs. The basic tips imparted of awareness, forgiveness, and action helped us get over ourselves so we could help Julia. In order to save her, we had to let go of our insecurities and failures and accept our situation. Whenever we lost hope, we reminded ourselves of the four agreements:

Number One: Be impeccable with your word.

Basically, say only what you mean and mean only what you say. To us, that meant choosing our words of support and encouragement with Julia very carefully, and if we didn’t have anything helpful to say, saying nothing at all.

Number Two: Don’t take anything personally.

We couldn’t let the brutality of the disordered thoughts that were dictating Julia’s actions at the time impact us. She was often out of her mind, and if we let her words influence us at all, we’d fall prey to her illness.

Number Three: Don’t make assumptions.

It was so easy to think that we knew what was going on when in reality, that’s not the case with mental illness. We had to listen and act without judgment or we’d be doomed.

Number Four: Always do your best.

The conditions around us were challenging and constantly changing so our best was a moment-to-moment experience. That was all we could ask of ourselves.

Julia beat the grim odds and is now in solid recovery after seven years of battling anorexia. As parents, Susan and I played a huge role in helping her find her way there. In our experience, this involved learning how to be patient, loving, vigilant, and determined. We were tested not only to reveal our weaknesses but to discover our strengths.

– Katherine

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13 thoughts on “Parenting a Child with Anorexia

  1. Anorexia is a very important issue. I believe that the influence of modern and social media increases the pressure on young people to conform to a certain ideal. That is why it is so important to talk about it and to warn against it. To close your eyes would be wrong!

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  2. Katherine, thank you for sharing your struggles, insights, and coping skills. I’ve also parented a child with multiple mental health issues and it is easy to blame ourselves. You have done an amazing job taking care of your family and I am grateful that you and Julia offer this venue for sharing the complexity and seriousness of mental health wellness.

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    1. Thank you. The sharing it with others part is really important. We just didn’t get to meet or hear families in recovery when we were in crisis so we didn’t know what it looked like. We are happy to start the pay it forward approach so we can break the stigma. Thanks for your comments.

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    1. So much of what we had to learn due to a crisis is benefiting us now and forever. So much good can come out of a bad situation. Thanks for your comment.

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    1. Yes, all those, and getting them help when they need it. I thought our home and our choices were best, and most of them time they were. Sometimes they need more than what we can give. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. As a Psychotherapist and having grown up with anorexic friends and an anorexic mother, I appreciated this post. As a lesbian, I also appreciated the unique struggles of a same-sex couple navigating this. Generally, people blame anorexics and their families, even if we believe otherwise that is the common perception and it’s not only wrong but incredibly damaging. I wish you all only good things. We cannot be everything to everyone, we can only do our best and I am certain you did and continue to do. It is a challenging and frightening world to send children into, but it can be beautiful also and you show that in the smile in your little girls eyes. We are just publishing Through The Looking Glass, dealing with mental illness, including Anorexia, and hope it will go someway to adding to the change that must come.

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    1. Do your best, don’t take it personally, don’t make assumptions and say what you mean, those are The Four Agreements, a great book we read early in our crisis. It has guided us along the way and into recovery. All the worry does not help. Thank you for your great insight and determination.

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  4. This is such an insightful post. Would you allow us to share it in our next issue pls? We’re an online magazine aimed at women. We write ourselves and we gather well written articles and repost them for our readers. We don’t earn so sadly can only offer you credits and links. Take a look at our site and see if you’d be happy for us to share this post. Many thanks C&L

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    1. Hi C&L! Thank you so much! We’d be thrilled if you shared this post in your next issue! That’s so kind of you, thanks! Is there anything else you’d need from us?

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