When parent and child both have an eating disorder

We often hear about parents who have a child who is diagnosed with an eating disorder and, once they understand the symptoms, realize that they fall within the eating disorder spectrum, too.

There are two ways this can go. The first is that you already knew you have an eating disorder, and have either tried to treat it in the past or have never treated it for various reasons.

Or, you may be surprised to find out that your lifestyle, which you believed was necessary and healthy, actually falls on the eating disorder spectrum. This is because many weight loss and weight control efforts actually fit eating disorder diagnoses.

We used to think that eating disorders required a firm “underweight” diagnosis, but we now know that people can have all the symptoms of an eating disorder without being “underweight.” In fact, the majority of people who have eating disorders are not medically underweight.

When we set weight bias aside, we suddenly notice that many of us have been suffering from eating disorder symptoms while under the mistaken belief that we were pursuing “health.” This is the result of the fact that weight loss and weight control efforts have been heavily promoted in our culture despite the fact that they are very harmful to our physical and mental health.

Three key eating disorder behaviors

There are three key eating disorder behaviors that characterize the three main eating disorder types – anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia (which incorporates all three behaviors):

  • Restricting food
  • Binge eating
  • Purging
  • Over-exercising

Surprising symptoms of an eating disorder

While the three symptoms above are important, they can also be a little tricky. With the exception of being medically “underweight” and purging food, most eating disorder behaviors occur on a spectrum and can be hard to pin down. Also, most people who have an eating disorder, especially those of us who have them into adulthood, don’t fit neatly into a single eating disorder type. Here is a list of eating disorder symptoms that you may not have considered:

  • Feelings of shame when weight is gained
  • Feelings of accomplishment when weight is lost
  • A relentless desire to lose weight or maintain a certain weight
  • An obsession with appearance, and frequent “body checking” in reflective surfaces
  • Compulsive body weighing, the results of which influence how you feel about yourself and how you eat and behave that day
  • Feeling fear and shame when can’t exercise
  • Compulsive exercising, especially when sick or conditions are poor (e.g. rain, stress, traffic, etc.)
  • Avoiding certain foods, being afraid of certain foods, and feeling shame when eating certain foods (e.g. sweets, “junk” food, carbs, full-fat, etc.)
  • Avoiding life events and social gatherings due to a sense of being “too fat” or “not ready”
  • Avoiding life events and social gatherings because of fear of food exposure and the risk of “ruining” a diet

A child’s diagnosis leads to a parents’ diagnosis

As you learn more about your child’s eating disorder, you may start to notice that you have many symptoms of an eating disorder, too. This doesn’t mean you are the cause of your child’s eating disorder. Nor does it mean you are irreparably damaged.

Just as we need to adjust our thoughts about what an eating disorder is, we can also adjust our thoughts about the outcomes of an eating disorder. And the truth is that while they are not easy to overcome, most eating disorders can be overcome if the right conditions are met.

If you think you may have an eating disorder, you may think that you should get your child through treatment before you get treatment for yourself. This is a natural assumption – parents tend to want to put their children first.

But when it comes to eating disorders, you want to work on your eating disorder symptoms as soon as possible. In fact, treating your own eating disorder may make all the difference in helping your child recover from their eating disorder.

Why parents need to recover from their eating disorders

Eating disorders are as much about the environment we live in as they are about any biological factors. We may be born with a temperamental predisposition towards anxiety and depression. On such a foundation, an eating disorder can take hold. But not everyone who has anxiety and depression develops an eating disorder, and this variation appears to be based, at least in part, on the environment in which we live.

If you are living with eating disorder symptoms, then your child may be, by default, living in an environment that is supporting eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Parents have tremendous power to support a child’s recovery by pursuing recovery for themselves.

How parents can recover from an eating disorder

You may feel completely stretched and as if you can’t possibly treat your own eating disorder symptoms while you are pursuing your child’s health. But this is not an either/or situation; it is a situation in which both of you must get treatment, and your healing will most likely help your child’s recovery.

Recovery from an eating disorder doesn’t need to take over your life or cost a ton of money. Here are some steps an adult can take to recover from an eating disorder:

  1. Learn about Health at Every Size: it is virtually impossible to fully recover from an eating disorder without dropping our weight bias. Basically, if we have lived our whole lives believing that we need to lose weight or maintain a certain weight, we need to open our eyes to the fallacy and futility of this pursuit. Health at Every Size has been proven to lead to better health than any weight loss efforts. Start by reading the book Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
  2. Learn about Intuitive Eating: eating disorder recovery requires a natural and peaceful relationship with food. Intuitive Eating is a practice that opens up food barriers and teaches you to listen to your body rather than follow food rules or diet programs. Intuitive Eating has been proven to lead to better health than any weight loss efforts. Start by reading the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
  3. Understand Eating Disorders: it can help to understand the many reasons we develop eating disorders, which go way beyond dieting, eating, and weight. Understanding the emotional drivers of eating disorders can be very helpful in healing. If you are female, start by reading the book Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling, by Anita Johnston
  4. Get Therapy or Coaching: it’s a good idea to engage a therapist or coach to help you work through recovery. You can seek a therapist who will work on your past experiences that led towards disordered eating (psychodynamic), a therapist who will work on tangible skills for overcoming your eating disorder (CBT/DBT), a recovery coach who will work with you to set and achieve goals, or a non-diet nutritionist who will help you relearn the art of eating peacefully. The only requirement is that you find a professional who is non-diet, weight-neutral, and follows a Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating paradigm. If the professional exhibits any weight bias or suggests that weight loss is a desired outcome of your work together, seek another professional.

As you heal your own relationship with your body and eating, you will notice that your attitudes about bodies, food, and eating will become lighter and less fraught. Your child will benefit from your recovery both in the environment you create and your ability to understand the work they are doing to recover from their own eating disorder.

We all take our own paths to recovery, so don’t worry if this takes time, or if you struggle with recovery. While the resources above are a great starting point, you are on your own journey, and there is nothing wrong with going at your own pace.

Sending you so much love as you work towards healing – for yourself, and your child.


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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