My sweet girl slipped right through my fingers. A lovely, well-adjusted child right up until puberty began at about 11 years old, she spent her adolescence and young adulthood battling an eating disorder that I didn’t even know about. I missed the symptoms and cries for help, and I’m still struggling with my guilt that I did not help her.
I did the best I could. I know this. I love her and gave her the best care I was able to. But the fact remains that she was hurting, and I can see that there are signs I missed and steps I could have taken to help her.
Today, I see more clearly the things I could have done differently for my daughter. When I found out about her eating disorder, I was faced with two choices: bury my guilt or examine my role. The funny thing is, burying my guilt, which I did for a while, was actually more painful than shining a bright light on my parenting and allowing my past mistakes to inform my behavior today. I have found peace in giving myself compassion even as I learn more about our past and intentionally build our future. I can’t say it’s easy, but I am much happier today than I was when I was trying to avoid looking at my role in my child’s eating disorder.
I did the best I could. I was young. I didn’t understand what my daughter needed from me. She was hurting, and I didn’t know what to do. I can say this with self-compassion and without shame because my daughter is still here. There is still time for me to be the parent she needs.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned in hindsight and the things I’m doing to help my adult daughter recover from her eating disorder.
1. Hold her closer
My daughter seemed happy and well-adjusted in elementary school. When she entered puberty, she changed. She seemed angry and secretive and started to pull back from me. The truth of the matter is that I had a lot going on at the time, and I was both hurt and relieved when she seemed to need less of me. I allowed myself to believe that all teenage daughters are “difficult,” which protected me from the hurt I felt every time she lashed out at me or ignored me.
Now I can see that my daughter desperately needed me to be an active parent, but I behaved like a hurt child. I’ve learned that my own parents set the stage for how I handled my daughter during adolescence, and it was with a 10 foot pole! My sweet girl needed me to hold her closer, but I sort of just held my breath, hoping we could emerge intact when she “got through” her teens.
Today my child is an adult, and we did get through her teens. But it came at a cost to her health and our relationship. I can’t go backward and re-do her adolescence or take away her eating disorder, but I am talking to her while she’s recovering, and I know that I can still help her. I keep learning what I can, showing up, asking her questions, and reflecting on my behavior as she navigates eating disorder recovery. I look carefully at my automatic, defensive responses when something she says or does triggers me. And I do the best I can today with what I know now.
2. Listen, don’t lecture
When she was a teenager, my daughter was infuriating to me. She was sometimes sneaky and lied. I knew she was doing something “wrong,” but I didn’t really know what. I spent a lot of time lecturing her about morality and good behavior. She sat silently through my lectures with a smirk, which just enraged me further.
Now I know that my daughter was actually lying and sneaking around – with her eating disorder. Yes, there were other things she was doing, but her most fundamental “crime” in adolescence was her eating disorder, which she hid with great skill. I’ve learned that people who have eating disorders hide what they are doing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be discovered, especially by their mothers. I didn’t realize this at the time, but by lecturing instead of listening I missed the opportunity to catch the hints she gave me along the way. My lectures just drove the eating disorder deeper into hiding.
Today I’m learning to listen. I’ll be honest – it’s hard. I feel compelled to give my daughter advice to help her navigate her recovery faster so that she can feel all better. I keep reading about eating disorders, and I really want to give her advice and information about what I’ve learned. But I’ve been practicing mindfulness, and instead of saying everything that comes to mind, I watch thoughts go through my mind and stick to listening instead of lecturing. I am not always successful, but I’ve noticed that the more I listen, the more my daughter relaxes with me, and the more she speaks up about how she feels. I know that her being able to speak to me about her feelings is an excellent sign that she is recovering from her eating disorder.
3. Learn about myself
When my daughter went into teenage rages or sulks, I often shut down emotionally. I just didn’t know how to handle the slamming doors, the tears, and the painful silences. In my family, my own mother ignored us when we “acted up,” and I learned quickly to never express how I felt, especially “bad” feelings like anger. I learned to hide how I felt when I was a child, and so when my own child “acted up,” I didn’t know what else to do than to shut myself down. Sometimes I would yell back or tell her that I didn’t like what she was doing, but more often, in the heat of the moment, I just disappeared inside of myself when she was doing something that made me emotionally uncomfortable.
I now know that a mother’s withdrawal from her child’s emotional expression is experienced by the child as abandonment. It feels brutal to me to think that my daughter felt I was abandoning her because of course, that’s not what I was trying to do. I was just doing the best I could and trying to get through the day. And yet, this emotional abandonment impacted her relationship with me and with herself.
Today I’m learning about my own emotional landscape. I’m learning that my defense mechanisms didn’t come out of nowhere, and they impacted my child, whose happiness drives my own happiness. Luckily our children always crave unconditional acceptance from their mothers, and so I still have a chance to be better and to give her what she needs. While she’s in recovery for her eating disorder, I frequently feel emotionally uncomfortable. I desperately want to withdraw and hide. But I’m staying with her, compassionately reminding myself that we can both tolerate feelings, no matter how big and terrifying they seem.
My daughter has been in eating disorder recovery for a while now, and I am enjoying the new aspects of her personality that are being uncovered. What I thought at first was just an “eating problem” I now see was a problem with her sense of self and her ability to express herself. I’m proud of her, and I’m also proud of myself for being able to face my own fears during this process.