Moms who have kids with eating disorders are at high risk for compassion fatigue

I was talking to a teenager the other day who has been hospitalized twice for anorexia. She is lovely. She was talking about her last relapse, and how much she needed her mom during that time.

“I mean, I couldn’t even let her go to the bathroom by herself – I needed to be with her all the time,” she said. I nodded understandingly, thinking about what an amazing mom this girl has, and how lucky she is to receive such wonderful care for her disorder.

My second thought, though, was “Jeez! That must be so incredibly hard for that mom!”

Moms with compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with caring for another person, especially if they have a mental or physical health condition. It’s commonly found in healthcare workers, care providers, and, of course parents. Due to our gender roles, moms and women tend to experience more compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is something that most moms probably have a little bit every single day. Our consistent care for the people in our families combined with paid work, volunteer work, and housework is typically already at the maximum level even without extenuating circumstances.

Moms who are managing a family member who has a condition like anxiety, depression, and/or an eating disorder can find themselves overwhelmed with their loved ones’ needs. In these cases, if we aren’t taking intentional action to care for our own needs, we may experience compassion fatigue.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can cause symptoms that can significantly impact our ability to enjoy life, and they also make it harder to care for our loved ones. Symptoms include:

  • Excessive blaming of other people both in and outside of your family
  • A deep sense of being isolated and overwhelmed
  • Increased behavioral addictions like drinking, overspending, and disordered eating
  • Not caring for yourself (e.g. showering, brushing hair, brushing teeth, eating regularly)
  • Chronic physical ailments like back pain, recurrent colds, and gastrointestinal problems
  • Recurring nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and a sense that you can never get enough sleep
  • Mentally and physically tired and apathetic
  • Activities that you once enjoyed are no longer interesting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased risk of anxiety, depression, and associated conditions

Care for yourself, too

It may seem impossible to imagine not giving all of ourselves to the people who we love. But the fact is that if we fail to take care of ourselves as well, many of us will show symptoms of compassion fatigue. Since many of us don’t want to set boundaries and say “no” when things become too much for us, Compassion Fatigue is a way that our bodies step in and say “no” on our behalf.

Because as much as we want to do everything for everyone we love, we can’t pour from an empty cup. We simply must find a way to fill ourselves and meet our own needs in order to provide the care our loved ones need from us.

I know – your attention is already overwhelmed by managing a child who needs extra care on top of the everyday management of your family, and imagining having any additional attention to give to yourself seems ridiculous.

We have some articles about self-care to help:

Here is a printable I created to help you spot the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

If you believe you are experiencing Compassion Fatigue, then please consider getting some help. You may need some help with caring for your loved one(s). Or perhaps you need help caring for your home.

But most importantly, consider getting some help for your mental health – perhaps a therapist or coach can help you determine the best way for you to juggle everything on your plate without sacrificing yourself along the way.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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