An Open Letter to Parents of Children Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Dear Parents,

This is an incredibly difficult journey that you are embarking on, one that you never wished to begin or even dreamt of coming upon. It will bring up powerlessness, helplessness, confusion, anger, and grief. There will be times where you may not recognize the child sitting in front of you and you wonder if you failed as a parent because your child is struggling so much, acting in ways you never taught them was acceptable. It may already feel like an emotional roller coaster, and that’s okay. I ask you to try to do what your child is being asked to do in therapy – lean into it.

Lean into the distress when you can. Lean into those uncomfortable emotions and fears that are bubbling up inside. Lean on your partner, family, friends, or a therapist to help guide you through the good days and the bad.

This will also be a time of growth for you too. Eating disorders impact the whole family, and some families say that this journey has brought them closer together. These families in particular have reflected on the ways they communicate, especially when it comes to uncomfortable topics or emotions. They have explored their own individual relationships with food, body image, and exercise. They have unpacked family dynamics that are dysfunctional at best, or unhealthy at worst. And most importantly, they have been willing to change. 

None of that is to say that this eating disorder is your fault. It’s not. Eating disorders are incredibly complex and their development is different for every single person struggling with one. What we do know is that family dynamics (interpersonally or directly in relation to food) impact how successful recovery can be. We grow up in a culture that idealizes thinness, promotes a different fad diet every year, and degrades people in larger bodies, so we have all internalized certain messages. We are all impacted by our own families of origin and may be replaying hardwired dynamics without even realizing it. This kind of reflection not only shows your child that approaching tough topics is healthy and doable, but also helps to promote what their team is teaching them in sessions. It allows for conversations to be more open and may even improve your own physical or mental health in the process.

This journey is very harrowing and we know you are trying your best to say the right thing, make the right meal, and set appropriate boundaries. There’s a lot on your plate right now (no pun intended) and being asked to self-reflect may feel like you are pushing your limit. That’s okay. Focus on helping your child and collaborating with their team and you’ll be surprised how much you’ll grow, even without sitting down to actively reflect on your own beliefs and behaviors. The small wins on this journey will start to add up and the fog will start to lift, life will start to feel more normal again, and we hope that your family comes out of the other side stronger and more connected than ever before.