Helping a child recover from an eating disorder prepared me for parenting in a pandemic

by Oona Hanson

Some of the most poignant essays about parenting during the coronavirus have come from families who have already experienced a quarantine or the sustained care of an immunocompromised loved one.

I started thinking about how living through a child’s serious illness helped build my own family’s resilience and confidence as we prepare to weather this current storm. 

Having a child develop a life-threatening eating disorder and undergo a number of different treatment programs (all of which were traumatic in their own right) taught us so many skills that are applicable in this moment. I am deeply grateful for the painful lessons we learned.

1. Opting out of socializing is nothing new to us

During certain phases of the illness and treatment, we were house-bound. For nearly a year, eating in restaurants wasn’t an option because it would paralyze our sick child with fear. Staying home to monitor meals and physical activity became a new normal. At other times, we simply didn’t have the energy to see friends. Even though I’m extroverted by nature, I had a physical aversion to being in a group or making small talk. Self-isolating was the choice I had to make for my own self-care, even when it meant making sacrifices. Knowing I turned down the chance to cheer on my beloved Dodgers (from a private box!) reminds me I can survive without longed-for special outings and celebrations.

2. Panic-buying, hoarding, and rationing don’t ruffle us

The responses to seeing long lines or empty grocery store shelves make perfect sense when you consider how evolution has primed us to endure the threat of famine. A feeling of scarcity can trigger a variety of behaviors intended to boost the chances of survival for an individual or their family group. Understanding these biological reactions helps me withhold judgement of others and keeps my own anxiety from spiraling when I see certain supplies running low.

3. We aren’t afraid of meals and snacks that aren’t “fresh,” “perfectly balanced,” or what diet culture would deem “healthy”

We had to kick the diet mentality to the curb a long time ago, so we already follow this mantra: all foods fit. Comfort food is always welcome, and we know it’s normal to have particular, often nostalgic, cravings during times of uncertainty. Rather than worry about calories or micronutrients, we know we’re better off reducing our anxiety around nutrition and that neutralizing foods–not elevating or demonizing them–decreases their power over us. Our new approach to eating, more relaxed and peaceful, is actually healthier than ever. 

4. We learned how to menu-plan

I had long aspired to be someone who could plan ahead and shop for a week’s worth of groceries, but I never seemed to follow through–until I had to. During the nutritional rehabilitation phase of family-based treatment, we had to plan out three meals and three snacks a day–taking into account the need for variety, high energy content, and systematic exposure to “fear foods.” Meal-planning and shopping became like a puzzle that demanded focus, creativity, and flexibility–skills we are using regularly during this new normal of socially-distant, hit-or-miss grocery shopping.

5. We know it’s okay to mourn the little things

Although health and safety are always the top priority, we learned how important it is to grieve the loss of other parts of life–the cancellation of long-planned adventures, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and what-would-have-been annual traditions. It’s important to let ourselves feel sad when our hopes and dreams–and even our ordinary expectations–are dashed.

6. Relaxing certain rules can be healing and joyful

At an intensive eating disorder treatment program, we were shown the power of meal-time distraction for patients learning to eat again–in the form of watching old episodes of “The Office.” It was hard at first to let go of our old “no-TV-at-dinner” rule (other than during baseball playoffs, that is!). It helped us see there are times for putting aside rigid rules when the game changes; different seasons of life call for different approaches–not to mention the fact that enjoying humor as a family can buoy you through some really stormy days.

7. We’ve learned how to discuss hard things

Talking openly about mental health is a skill we had to develop. It’s such a relief now to be able to check in with each other and be able to speak more matter-of-factly about painful feelings. Being open and direct about the tough stuff didn’t come naturally to us, but it got easier with practice.  

In our darkest days, it was hard to find hope, particularly as eating disorder recovery is seldom a linear process. Fear, especially of the unknown, can make it nearly impossible to function. But it doesn’t have to break you. 

I believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of post-traumatic growth. And I recognize it’s a great privilege to have access to the support and care you need to get through pain and loss in one piece.

All parents are struggling in one way or another right now. And I’m hopeful families will come through this experience even stronger, with deeper wells of gratitude, resilience, and wisdom. In the meantime, we need to go easy on ourselves and remember that this, too, shall pass.


In education for over twenty years, Oona Hanson works as a parent coach, supporting parents of teens and tweens. Passionate about helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, she runs the Facebook page “Parenting Without Diet Culture” and gives parent education workshops on body image resilience and eating disorder prevention. She holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology and a Master’s degree in English. Oona lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook: “Oona Hanson–Parent Coaching.” To learn more, visit www.oonahanson.com

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