Advice from a former parent of Walden Behavioral Care’s Adolescent IOP

My daughter smiled at me vaguely from across the blood lab. It was eerie to be honest.  We were there to “scare her” into appreciating she was sick with an eating disorder. The pediatrician had sent us there; I was at my wits end. She had lost close to 25 pounds in three months, and it was not stopping.  She was cold all the time, her skin was flaking, and her hair was beginning to fall out.  But, despite experiencing all of these physical problems, she was still pitching her lunch at school and wiping dinner into napkins, dropping food on the floor, hiding it in her cheeks or spitting it out. No amount of telling her there was a problem was getting through. Surely the blood draw would scare her into the realization something was deeply wrong. She just sat there watching the needle go in and looked vaguely ahead.  It didn’t work.

On one occasion, my husband even strapped his heart rate monitor on her to show her calmly and rationally how her body needed energy to live. He methodically explained carbohydrates, fat, and protein.  “Do you get it now?” he asked. No. She didn’t.   Even the night before she entered treatment at Walden, she went up to him and said, “Look Dad, I am strong I can do 40 push ups. Watch me, see I am strong!”

No matter what her body was telling her or what my husband or I did or said she could not see how sick she was.

It is very important that parents know that children with eating disorders are often unaware they are ill. They are prisoners being held captive in their own minds incapable of seeing the gravity of their illness, or the risk of their behaviors often due to malnutrition. But, know that the physical and emotional problems associated with eating disorders are largely reversible. By stabilizing nutrition and normalizing eating and eating behaviors, children with eating disorders can regain their self-awareness, engage in treatment, and learn to nurture insight and motivation.  But it is a long and difficult process for parents to guide their child through.

Important Things to Remember if Your Child Has an Eating Disorder:

  • It is normal for sufferers not to want to talk about their eating disorder, but this does not mean they are in denial about what is going on.  Their lack of ability to outwardly acknowledge their illness or sickness is likely rooted in physiology, primarily due to significant malnutrition or use of dangerous behaviors (purging, etc.).
  • People with eating disorders often feel intense anxiety, and a “need” for privacy due to the attempts of others to disrupt their unhealthy eating patterns (family, physicians, therapists, etc.).
  • Sufferers do not think anything is wrong, even when their hair is beginning to fall out and their heart is unable to sustain a healthy heart rate or move blood effectively to vital organs and tissues because they believe the disease is consistent with their interests and beliefs.

If you’re a parent beginning treatment for your child’s eating disorder and you see any of these things in your child, know you are not alone, and it is not just your child. If it persists during treatment it is also very common. It takes a long time. Just listen to your clinician and their recommendations for your child. Give treatment your utmost despite your child’s inability to see how sick they are, no matter how frustrating for you as a parent. Your child needs your focus and commitment to the process of healing and recovery despite not being able to see how sick they are.

Check out the resources below for more information on helping your child overcoming an eating disorder.

Help you Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder by James Lock and Daniel La Grange, 2005

F.E.A.S.T.:  Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment: principals and fast facts for parents