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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

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What I want parents to know about eating disorder recovery, an interview with Kristie Amadio CEDC

We interviewed Kristie Amadio, Certified Eating Disorder Coach and Founder of Recovered Living. Kristie is recovered from an eating disorder and now coaches people who are in recovery and their families. She even lives with families 24-7 as they navigate recovery, making her an excellent resource for what really goes on during recovery and what parents need to know about the process.

1. What do you wish all parents knew about eating disorders?

That it’s not their fault. Every parent I’ve ever met feels this way but the truth is, the cause of eating disorders is a combination of genetics and environment.

I think parents look at the word ‘environment’ and blame themselves, but I’ve worked with many people in recovery who were teased at school, or read a magazine about weight loss and that triggered their eating disorder. Environment doesn’t necessarily mean ‘home environment,’ it means the world we live in. Right now, we live in a weight-centric society. It is impossible to protect against it but we can help shift it by taking a stand against body shaming and having an inclusive attitude towards food.

I also want parents to know that getting support for themselves is so important. It can be scary and overwhelming to help a child navigate recovery, and having someone who is dedicated to supporting your needs can really help.

Parenting for positive food and body

2. Are there any particular books or learning materials you recommend to parents who have kids who are in recovery?

Absolutely! Carolyn Costin has some excellent books on eating disorder recovery that are easy to read and super informative. Her book 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder: Effective Strategies from Therapeutic Practice and Personal Experience is designed for people in recovery, but I often recommend parents/friends read it because it can help them gain a better understanding of the world of eating disorders.

The great thing about the digital age is there is a veritable wealth of information out there that help to create an understanding of the recovery process so parents don’t feel quite so in the dark. I encourage parents to read as much as they can about eating disorders, and also to reach out and find a support group if possible where it is safe for them to express their own feelings about the process.

One of the services I love providing is Support Space, which is a free online support group for family and friends of people with eating disorders. It runs for an hour each month and people attend from all over the world. I like the idea of it being a place where people can ask questions, work through difficult situations and get the support they need. An eating disorder doesn’t just affect one person in the family, it affects the whole family. Feel free to jump on the website and come along!

3. What do you think kids who live at home need most from their parents during recovery?

Everyone’s recovery is different, but in general, I think kids living at home need their parents to be their parents first and foremost. It is so easy for parents to fall into the role of therapist/dietitian/and food police – it is a hard line to walk. People living at home need a duality of things – they need boundaries but also grace, they need support but they also need to learn how to stand on their own. They need closeness and they need space. There isn’t a perfect way to parent someone in recovery – it’s going to be messy!

An eating disorder is a disordered relationship with food, a disordered relationship with the body, and a disordered relationship with the self. People consciously or unconsciously use their eating disorders to communicate in relationships but the rest of the world doesn’t speak that language! Part of the recovery process is learning new ways of being in relationships, using words rather than their eating disorder, and weaning themselves off the ‘safe’ relationship of their eating disorder and onto healthier but ultimately changeable relationships with other people.

This is why I think that kids need help articulating what they need from their parents as a very first step. Most kids don’t know, which can make it hard to parent them! Learning to articulate needs is something they need to learn from a therapist, a mentor, coach, etc. … or it could just come with time. Deep soul work isn’t an easy process, but slow change is sustainable change.

body image for girls ebook

4. What would you say to a parent who is feeling hopeless about their child’s recovery?

The first thing I want to say is, ‘I hear you.’ Eating disorders are scary and can have very very bleak looking prospects at times. I don’t want to bullshit anyone and say ‘it’s going to be OK,’ because I can’t guarantee that. What I can guarantee is that while there is life, there is hope.

Provided someone’s body is willing to continue sustaining life, there is a part of them, (even if it is a cellular part) that wants to live. That is the part I focus on. I always take the stance that just because an eating disorder is stubborn and persistent doesn’t mean it is impossible … it just means it is stubborn and persistent.

I think it is important to make a distinction between hope and attachment. Carolyn Costin says, ‘don’t be attached to the results.’ What this means is that recovery – whether they take the road to recovery or not – is the individual’s choice. No one chooses to develop an eating disorder but they can choose to recover. Sometimes I feel like 70% of my work with clients is going through the process of making that choice. I don’t know that everyone will choose it but I know that everyone can.

If someone doesn’t want recovery, I’m not going to force it on them. Some people want to live the rest of their life with their eating disorder because it feels safer or more comfortable than recovery. I feel sad about the life they are missing out on but I also respect their choice. I hold hope that they will choose differently in the future, but I’m not attached to what they choose – they have free will.

Here’s what I really want parents to know: I’ve seen too many miracles to give up, so I don’t give up, not on anyone. Ever.

To those parents who feel hopeless right now, please remember that while there is life there is hope. A huge part of recovery is getting to the point of being brave enough to want a different life, so being in a difficult spot could be a good thing – sometimes hitting rock bottom is what instigates change.

5. What do you think is the hardest part about living with someone who is in recovery?

So many things! Feeling shut out, feeling helpless, struggling to see your person in pain but knowing the pain is necessary to recover. I’ve had an eating disorder and I’ve lived with people with an eating disorder. Both are equally hard in different ways – I mean that. A family’s support role is JUST as hard as having the eating disorder itself.

My best advice is to keep the three tenants of recovery in mind:

  1. You can’t make your person want to recover
  2. You can’t do it for them
  3. You can set your boundaries about what you will and won’t tolerate

As much as it is important for your person to be communicating about what is going on for them, the same goes for you. No more walking on eggshells, no more ignoring the elephant in the room – an eating disorder thrives in secrecy and isolation but once it is brought to the table, it can’t survive in secret anymore.

Kristie Amadio is a Certified Eating Disorder Coach and Founder of Recovered Living. She is also a certified life coach and eating psychology coach. A former elite athlete, she worked as a counselor in both Australia and New Zealand before beginning Recovered Living as a solution to the gap between recovering in a treatment center and continuing recovery when back at home. She uses the same strength she required in her own recovery to guide and inspire others while her genuine compassion allows her to connect easily with clients.

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Can a person fully recover from an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are poorly understood, and there are many different perspectives on why they occur and exactly what is involved in their development and recovery. The quick answer, is YES. A person can fully recover from an eating disorder.

There are many theories pointing towards a combination of genetics, temperament, family, and social predictors. As of right now, all we can say is that these factors seem to combine in some people to result in an eating disorder.

For a long time, eating disorders were treated similarly to the addiction model for alcohol. This means they were seen as persistent and something that can never be healed, only managed. Some treatment providers still see eating disorders as lifetime afflictions.

For a very long time, eating disorders were treated as something that parents caused though a combination of inattention and neglect. Some treatment providers still see eating disorders as something that are directly related to parenting practices.

However, neither of these approaches is currently considered appropriate in the treatment of eating disorders today. There is a large population of people who have had eating disorders who now consider themselves fully recovered. There are also many signs pointing to the confluence of factors (genetic, temperament, family, and social) rather than a single-source cause of eating disorders.

Can eating disorders be cured?

Yes. Any person can identify as recovered from an eating disorder – it’s completely up to the individual to define recovery for themselves. Some people who identify as recovered experience relapses, others find they must commit to recovery every day, and others feel completely free of their disorder.

Many of us move from having eating disorders to what is technically considered disordered eating. Since one survey found that about 65% of the U.S. population meets the criteria for disordered eating, this is less dire than it seems. In fact, disordered eating, in our culture, is considered “normal.”

And there are people who continue living with their eating disorders. This is not a crime, but a choice made by people that is no different from choosing to live with (rather than fight) a powerful behavioral pattern such as gambling, shopping, sex, and, of course, substance abuse.

What is full recovery from an eating disorder?

Since eating disorders are complex psychosocial adaptations, there is no easy way to define recovery. Nor is it necessary to do so. Each individual is allowed to state whether they live as a recovered person regardless of how others perceive their recovery.

It’s important to know that eating disorder/disordered eating status has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence, strength, or worthiness.

However, there are some common themes that arise in the eating disorder recovery community regarding what “full recovery” looks like, and they include:

  • The ability to eat all foods (excluding medical allergies) without fear or shame.
  • The ability to feel neutral or positive about one’s body, regardless of its weight and shape.
  • Healthy coping strategies that allow us to process uncomfortable emotional states without causing harm to ourselves.
  • Not attempting to reduce or maintain weight in any way through restriction or purging.
  • Healthy interpersonal relationships that are fulfilling and meaningful.

There are many more signs of full recovery from an eating disorder, but these are the ones that arise most frequently in the community.

What is disordered eating?

Sixty-five percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 report having disordered eating behaviors, according to a 2008 survey by SELF Magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Disordered eating is a natural side effect of intentional weight loss, in fact, the majority of diets are disordered eating. The symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Desire to lose weight
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Seeing food as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy
  • Feeling shame and guilt for eating “bad” or “too much” food
  • Eating in secret
  • Binge eating after a period of restriction
  • Restricting food for periods of time (including skipping meals when hungry and intermittent fasting for non-religious purposes)
  • Ignoring hunger cues based on established times for eating
  • Ignoring food cravings based on an established food plan
  • Using vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, and detoxes to reduce bloating, calories, and weight
  • Feeling compelled to exercise in order to achieve weight loss or maintain current weight

It’s important to know that a person who recovers from an eating disorder but continues to experience disordered eating is not a “recovery failure.” They are simply responding to strong societal cues and direct advice from healthcare providers, the government, media, loved ones, and even strangers.

Having disordered eating patterns in our current society can be considered adaptive based on the pervasive nature of diet culture.

Many of us who have recovered from an eating disorder and have the term “eating disorder” on our medical records will still receive weight loss recommendations from our healthcare providers despite the fact that such efforts are extremely risky for us. This situation exposes our society’s heavy weight bias and the challenges of maintaining full recovery in a fatphobic culture.

Nobody has to recover from an eating disorder

One thing we know for sure about eating disorders is that they require some form of personal motivation in order to recover. This doesn’t mean that loved ones cannot facilitate and support recovery efforts, but loved ones must also recognize that having an eating disorder, and choosing to recover, is a personal choice. Nobody can force a person to recover if they don’t want to.

Non-recovery or partial-recovery is not a failure. It is just the way that one person is dealing with their individual psychology and societal pressures. We must recognize that many people live in gray areas when it comes to food and body issues, and we must honor individual agency when it comes to recovery.

All people deserve respect, regardless of their eating disorder/disordered eating status.

Eating disorders are not a crime, and they are not the worst thing a person can do. This is not to dismiss the fatal nature of a very small subset of eating disorders, but rather to affirm that many of us live along a continuum of disordered eating, and we should have tremendous compassion, respect, and understanding for everyone on the spectrum.

What we have to do to recover from an eating disorder

Everyone recovers in their own way. Eating disorders are complex, and therefore recovery is complex, too. However, there are a number of trends among people who have recovered from an eating disorder, which include:

  • Healthy emotional hygiene practices – the ability to process uncomfortable emotions and manage anxiety.
  • Healthy self-worth – the perception of being inherently worthy. Believing that we have value regardless of our appearance or behaviors.
  • Healthy relationships with people – maintaining at least one healthy relationship that involves personal boundaries while sustaining deep connection and honoring each person’s individuality and worthiness.
  • Healthy relationship with food – recognizing that food is neither good nor bad, and the freedom to consume food without fear. Responding to hunger cues and food cravings with food rather than restriction. Recognizing that a person’s food consumption does not indicate that person’s worthiness.
  • Healthy relationship with the body – recognizing that the body’s appearance does not indicate a person’s value or worth.

When a person meets these criteria, they are operating from a higher level of self-worth and confidence than that of a person who is engaging in eating disorders and disordered eating. As we have stated, not everyone needs to recover to be worthy of our respect and compassion. We wish for everyone to achieve as much self-worth and peace within themselves as possible, regardless of their eating disorder/disordered eating status.

Why many of us become social justice warriors and fat positive activists

Because of the powerful societal pull to constantly shrink our bodies, full recovery requires significant effort, and many of us who identify as fully recovered are active in the anti-diet movement and work to overcome weight bias and stigma while promoting a Health at Every Size approach.

This is because we see the focus on maintaining low body weight as an unhealthy societal obsession rooted in sexist, patriarchal white supremacy. To understand these concepts, begin by learning about the social determinants of health, which have a far greater impact on human health than body weight. For many of us who have recovered, fat is a social justice and feminist issue.

Just as someone who has recovered from an alcohol addiction must navigate an alcohol-oriented society and sit through events and celebrations surrounded by alcohol while also being exposed to articles about the (nonexistent) health benefits of alcohol (based on biased studies funded by the alcohol industry), a person who has recovered from an eating disorder must sit through events and celebrations surrounded by weight loss advice, diet talk, healthism, fatphobia and food fear.

A person who has recovered from an eating disorder who lives in a larger body will likely be advised to lose weight “for health reasons” even though any efforts at intentional weight loss puts their entire recovery at risk. Aside from the risk of eating disorder relapse, repeated intentional weight loss has actually been shown to increase **not decrease** mortality rates (Journal of Community Health). Since almost everyone who has recovered from an eating disorder has intentionally lost weight at some point in their lives, their healthcare providers should actually be advising strongly **against** any future weight loss efforts. But, of course, most don’t.

If we pursue the alcohol analogy, recommending weight loss to someone who has recovered from an eating disorder is akin to recommending a glass of wine every night to someone who has recovered from an alcohol addiction. It doesn’t make any sense, but it happens every day for those of us who have recovered from eating disorders.

These situations and more inspire many of us to put the energy we once devoted to our eating disorders into social justice and fat positive movements.

Recovery looks different for each of us, and ideally, we find our own definition based on our individual criteria for health.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.