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  • Helly Barnes

Overcoming an Eating Disorder As A Parent


Image on a pavement of an adult walking along with a child


This post is part of a series about overcoming an eating disorder when you are in your mid or later life years. In earlier posts I've introduced the topic and explained why it is most definitely never too late to overcome an eating disorder, discussed mindset and identity, as well as the specific considerations of overcoming an eating disorder when you have a partner or spouse. In this post, I talk about some of the specific challenges that arise from overcoming an eating disorder as a parent with children to consider.


Of course this is specifically for my older readers who do have children. For others, it might be that the opportunity to have children didn't present at the time in life that you thought that you would or you might have chosen not to have any. This can also create some uniquely challenging emotions and situations, which will I will cover in more depth in a future post.


Children

Whether you want it to or not, an eating disorder will impact on your life, opportunities, relationships and how free and flexible you are able to be. That is not something to be self-critical about but to recognise as a fact. Eating disorders have a negative impact on you, your life and likely on the significant people in your life. If they didn't then you wouldn't be reading this or seeking a way to overcome one.


Many people with eating disorders in their mid or later life years have children who are either still small or grown up and there are a number of concerns, challenges and specific emotions that can arise from this, both when you still have an active eating disorder and when you are in the process of overcoming one. So, what issues might you face if you are overcoming an eating disorder and you have children?


Challenges That Can Arise From Overcoming an Eating Disorder as a Parent


Concerns About The Impact Of The Eating Disorder On The Children

As I understand it, most parents spend a lot of time worrying that they are going to 'screw up' their kids in one way or another through 'terrible parenting'. This is understandable when evolution has decided that our offspring should be the most important thing in our lives, so as to protect their safety and hence their ability to also go forward and procreate, ensuring the survival of the species. Therefore, it is human nature to be very self-critical of your parenting skills and worry about the impact you have on your children, although this is perhaps magnified in people with eating disorders.


When you have an eating disorder, it's natural that you are going to be concerned about what impact your behaviours or beliefs and anxieties around food, exercise or body image will have on your children. And, let's be real for a moment—to say that it won't have an impact on them would be a lie. It will. When there's something as significant and impactful as an eating disorder within the household, no matter how good you think you are at hiding it, it will impact. But that's not to say that the impact on your children will be entirely detrimental, in fact it might make them more insightful and aware of bigger cultural and life issues than many of their counterparts and in advantageous ways.


Whether to Explain About the Eating Disorder to the Children

This question is naturally more relevant to those of you with children old enough to understand. If you have a toddler or younger child then I am not sure that sitting down with them to explain that mummy or daddy has an eating disorder is going to help much!

But what about older children?


Children are very sensitive to what's happening around them and to the anxieties or shifts in their immediate caregivers and if you are working to overcome an eating disorder, which will necessarily create changes to your eating, behaviours and general energy levels, as well as make you more irritable, anxious and emotional while you go through the 'withdrawal effects', it's inevitable that your children will notice. If they don't understand or have reassurance as to why there are these changes, they might internalise it incorrectly, and in turn become more anxious. As I said before, you might feel that you are an expert at hiding the eating disorder and minimising the impact on your children and I know that you do all you can to protect them, but eating disorders will change all aspects of your life, no matter how much you try to deny it and to overcome it, you will need to change a lot of things, which will impact the whole family—but in ways that are ultimately for the greater good of all of you.


At the end of the day, you know your children better than anyone and it's important that you decide what to explain to them and how much. It might be that you just explain that you are going to be eating and resting more and gaining some weight for a while and that you might get a bit angry or cry sometimes but that it's all a good thing and to make you better. This way, they will be less worried when they notice the changes in you.


With older children, you might choose to explain more about eating disorders and what you are going through in ways they can understand and that will help to reassure them.

Deciding how openly to talk about the eating disorder with your children isn't easy but I don't doubt that you and your partner (if you have one) can navigate it effectively.


Below is the experience of a client of mine, who describes her decision to explain the eating disorder to her two daughters. I'm very grateful that she agreed that I could share this here to help others who are in a similar position feel less alone:

My eldest is 13 and I've known for a while that she twigged I had an issue with food / exercise.  She saw the podcasts and the books I read (it's hard to hide that) and she's a clever girl with supersonic hearing!! 
I never felt the need before to discuss with her in more detail - but as she is now a teenager it's more important she is aware of the dangers of dieting and restrictive behaviours. I had a chat with her last night about how she feels about it all.
She told me that school talk a lot about ED and try to bring awareness but that lots of girls go on about diets in school and their bodies, being thin etc.  With regards to me, she said that she gets what it is but doesn't understand how hard it is. She's supportive but like anyone, unless you've been through an ED or similar addiction you can't really understand. 
I told her that one of the reasons I have shared my issues is so that she realises the importance of talking.  I didn't have parents that I could comfortably confide in and I felt very lonely and sad when I was (perceived to be) 'overweight' when younger. Then I moved away from home when I met my husband and that mixed with years of being on a diet propelled me to restrict for comfort.  
I think, like any mental health issue, talking is key. I do feel ashamed and embarrassed that I've got this eating disorder and have suffered for so long, unable to beat it.  But if we talk about it and make people more aware and can intercept issues earlier maybe the younger generation won't end up like I am now. 
My youngest is 10, she doesn't know what an eating disorder is, so I gave her more of a brief overview and explained that mummy is going to work on her views on what I eat and the exercise I do.  She responded with "I'll eat more cake with you!" … Love their minds. 
My youngest doesn't understand what an eating disorder is or how you end up with one but she gets that I was 'overweight' when younger, my parents put me on diets to lose weight and now I'm stuck with these incorrect thoughts about food and exercise.  I just kept things simpler for her. 

Family Activities

Many of you with children are likely to be used to having busy and active lives with your children and as a family. In fact, the eating disorder could have been a key factor in ensuring that up until now, a key way that you had 'family time' together was through more physically active pursuits, such as walks and sporting activities, rather than by trips to the cinema or curling up at home together to read the whole Harry Potter series in one weekend!


Compulsive movement and a very addictive drive to keep 'doing' is a key part of a restrictive eating disorder for 95% of people and to overcome this side of the eating disorder and ensure that you are able to overcome the addictive nature of an eating disorder in its entirety, it will be necessary to limit your movement and 'busy-ness' to only the essential daily tasks so your brain can reprogram, and your body can heal and repair. Continuing active family trips and activities that you might all be used to doing together won't help at this point in your recovery process. Therefore, you will need to consider how to continue to have quality time with your children but without the movement and exercise-related activities. This again is where it will help to explain to your children that you need to rest more at the moment but reassure them that you are ok and that you do still want to do fun things with them. Ask them to help you come up with some fun ways to do things together that are much more sedentary and food-centric. Movie afternoons with pizza and ice cream, playing old fashioned board games and jigsaws, the cinema or picnics outside where the children can run about but you can sit, rest and eat are a few options. Let these changes in how you spend time as a family be a fun and novel change for your children, as well as for you.


If you are feeling resistance build to this point then try to recognise that you will need to make changes in this process that will feel like sacrifices in the shorter term. Therefore, it might be that your partner and the children do still go on active excursions together that wouldn't be wise for you at this point in time and so you might feel somewhat left out and disabled by the recovery process. Yes, that can suck. But you don't overcome other addictions by continuing to engage in them and the same too for exercise and movement related to an addiction to energy deficit (AKA a restrictive eating disorder). So instead, use the time of peace when your family are out to let your brain and body relax, the hunger to come through and to rest, eat and grow in all kinds of fabulous ways for your future and for your family.


The Family Dog(s)!

Ok, I know the dog is not your child, although some might argue that their dog is almost as important and as significant a member of the household as the children...


There are many of you attempting to give up compulsive walking and movement who also have a family dog to walk and often a very high energy dog at that. And, perhaps not surprisingly, as the person at home with compulsive walking and movement issues, it's very likely that for a long time, you have also been chief dog walker in the house and the rest of the family have now come to accept and depend on that fact. Well… you are going to need to think very carefully about what you do when it comes to dog walking and how you do manage this while also trying to significantly limit your movement and walking so that your process to overcome the eating disorder is more possible. Asking your partner or older children to do more might be one option or using a dog walker, as well as lowering your perception of how much walking time your dog really does need. If you had a physical condition impacting your ability to walk, you would have to find an alternative… Just because the eating disorder is more 'brain-based' and you might feel very physically able with a sense of falsely high energy, please don't underestimate how equally critical it is to take a break from the walking in order to recover.


Hyper-Focusing On The Eating Habits Of Your Child

It's not uncommon for people with eating disorders who have children to hyper-focus on the eating of one or more of their children and to feel very anxious about whether that child is eating enough, to the point that it becomes a barrier to their own recovery, even when the child in question is absolutely fine.


It's normal to have fears that your children could also develop eating disorders and face a similar dreaded fate to your own. In my experience though, most parents with eating disorders are so aware of the risks to their children, that they are taking action to protect their children from the harms of diet culture in such ways that their children are perhaps much less likely to trigger any possible genetic vulnerability than any of their peers.


If you do find that you are overly anxious about the eating patterns of one or more of your children, even when deep down you do know that that child is eating well and normally for their stage in life, take a step back and consider the bigger picture. When we are feeling generally more anxious, which can be the status quo when you are overcoming an eating disorder and pushing yourself into very anxiety-provoking situations several times a day, our brains can subconsciously look for other things to attribute these feelings of anxiety onto. Therefore, your brain might be noticing anxiety and looking for a reason for it. Your child is very precious to you and any threat to them is a threat to you. So, your brain looks for a reason to feel anxious about your child and what better reason than worrying about their eating? However, the real cause of the anxiety is the eating disorder affecting you and your need to eat more to eradicate it. So, when you do notice yourself hyper-focusing on the eating habits of your child, perhaps bring your attention back to the most critical threat in this moment - your own eating habits and eating disorder, and so eat more food there and then to address it. Do this enough times and most people find that the anxieties about their child minimises to a more normal level.


Sharing Household Chores So You Stop Doing It All!

Eating disorders do love to keep people compulsively busy by being on the go and trying to be a martyr to everyone. You might have the cleanest home, cater for everyone, race about with the children to meet all their needs in super-heroic ways and in ways that just aren't sustainable if you want to overcome the eating disorder, which necessitates rest and mental downtime to allow the real hard work of resisting eating disorder urges and sitting through very intense 'withdrawal' symptoms. Therefore, it can be critical in this process to share your household chores out with your partner (if you have one) but also with your children, if they are old enough.


Give your children household responsibilities in age-appropriate ways and let them have fun helping out! Allow your household standards to drop somewhat and go with a messily clean home that everyone feels they are contributing to. Children can enjoy household chores if they are allowed to and can see it as a game or as a way to 'earn' stars or other rewards. Don't feel guilty in asking your children to help with more in the home as it will help you with your recovery (which is ultimately also massively beneficial to them) and it might just give them an inner sense of reward at being allowed to help and be helpful.


Needing to Enter Treatment

Some of you might be in a situation where you have need to enter treatment for a time to help you make progress in overcoming the eating disorder. The treatment might be outpatient but it might also be more intensive and include inpatient or residential support, which can of course mean having lengthy periods of time away from home. This is a huge commitment and decision for anyone, but when you have children, deciding whether to enter treatment can be an even more complex and emotionally charged dilemma.


With this, keep at the top of your mind the fact that your ability to overcome the eating disorder is going to be the best outcome, not just for you, but for your children and wider family too. Sometimes it's just too hard to do all that is necessary at home, especially when life at home is otherwise so stressfully busy and demanding that you don't have the mental capacity left each day to then do all that it takes to change very addictive and hard to break patterns with your eating, while not compensating and letting your body gain weight. Sometimes time and space to make significant early changes in the process is needed to then make it more possible to keep going at home.


I know that you will feel guilty and very distressed at the thought of leaving your children so that you can enter treatment and it will take some logisitical working out in terms of who will take care of them but the guilt at entering treatment is not grounded. You need help, support and care to be the best you can be for your children long into the future and sometimes short term sacrifice on everyone is worth it for the longer term gains. It is a big decision to enter treatment when you have children who also demand your time and focus but sometimes, entering treatment can be the best decision you can make for yourself AND so too for them.


Eating The Most in The Family and Children's 'Innocent' Comments

As I covered in the post about partners and spouses and I have definitely spoken about in my books and other posts—to overcome a restrictive eating disorder, fully emerge from the state of energy deficit and reprogram your brain in full from all the restrictive eating habits and behaviours, it's essential to eat lots of food and respond to some very high hunger. When you really recognise all your ever present signs of hunger and respond to them in non-restrictive ways, it's more than likely that you will be eating a lot more than anyone else at home for a while. And this is not just ok but it is right and the best thing you can do for your free future. But this will mean that you do find you need to eat when the rest of the family aren't eating or that you do still feel hungry when the rest of the family are saying that they couldn't eat another thing. It's therefore important that you allow yourself to eat with your family but also to eat more than them at those meals and to be able to eat without them, without negatively judging yourself for it and only feeling pride that you are are doing so when it's going against patterns that are so addictively ingrained that to go against them takes immense strength and willpower.


Alongside this and as you gain weight, which is also an essential side effect to overcoming an eating disorder and getting out of energy deficit, it's possible that you will face innocent comments from your children. Many people face comments that are just innocent observations from their child about the fact that 'mummy or daddy is eating cake!!' just because the child hasn't seen their parent do so before and to them it is noteworthy - and let's face it, it is noteworthy! But when you are struggling with guilt over eating the cake already, having it highlighted to everyone can be hard. You might also have children commenting on your 'belly' that is now growing or making other comments about your changing body that are all completely innocent observations that are made as innocently as a child might comment about many other daily facts in their lives. But of course, when you are feeling vulnerable and sensitive, these comments can be hard to face but try to take a deep breath and choose to laugh because these comments are only coming from an innocent heart and they are truly statements of your progress that you deserve to feel proud of, whether you want to acknowledge it or not!


Allowing Yourself To Be Vulnerable And Emotional While You Go Through The Common Symptoms Of 'Withdrawal'

It's hard to give up restrictive eating habits and other compensatory behaviours that keep you in a state of energy deficit in very addictive ways when, on a surface level, they make you feel safe and much more emotionally stable. Like any powerful addiction (and I believe that an eating disorder can be as powerfully addictive as any ingested substances), to 'quit' your 'drug' of energy deficit will create a lot of very intense withdrawal symptoms that can feel impossible to tolerate.


These include feeling very agitated, high anxiety, low mood, tearfulness, irritability, anger and frustration. They can also include physical symptoms, such as headaches, exhaustion, stomach symptoms and shaking. To go through this at the best of times is so hard that too many fail to get very far but to do so when you also have children to consider is a huge ask. It's important though that you do have the ability to go through any symptoms of withdrawal that you do get and find ways to cope with them, letting yourself be vulnerable and able to cry or feel an emotional mess at times.


You will need to consider how you approach this with your children so that they are not alarmed if you are not your usual calm and emotionally more zoned-out self. Explaining to children that you might be tearful or a bit more irritable sometimes will be important and reassuring them that you are not angry with them and that you are getting better but that doing so can make you feel a bit sad sometimes, might be one way to help them understand. And if you need a hug at times, let them be the one to offer that comfort to you as that might also help them feel they are a help to you and not the cause of your distress. It is so hard to do this with children, while worrying about the impact on them, but keep reminding yourself that the impact on them will be much greater and more lasting if you continue to have an eating disorder now and into their adult lives.


Remember That Your Recovery Is a Change For Them Too But A Positive One And They Will Adjust Much Faster Than You

In the post about overcoming an eating disorder when you have a partner or spouse, I covered the fact that all the changes that come from overcoming an eating disorder necessitates essential brain changes and rewiring for you but it also means your immediate family will have some brain rewiring to do. And it's easy to forget this when you are deeply focused on your inner struggles and highly anxious, leading you to perceive 'threat' everywhere. However, it's important to remember that for years, perhaps all their lives, your children have known you as you are with an eating disorder and that's been their status quo for a long time.


As you overcome the eating disorder, you will change in so many ways and I'm not just talking about physical changes. Just the fact you eat more, rest more and aren't quite so driven and controlling will be noteworthy changes that your children will take time to adjust to as their new normal at home. At times, they are likely to forget that you now fully eat with them and engage in all kinds of food eventualities when you perhaps haven't before and they might expect you to be out at the gym at the habitual time you always were before, rather than at home and on the couch happy to watch a movie with them. Because they will take time to adjust to these positive changes and realise these changes are lasting ones, they are likely to say or do things from time to time, such as express surprise that you are eating more or not at the gym. While in an anxious state, your brain might try to perceive this as a criticism of the fact you are eating or not exercising when it's really not.


Your recovery is a learning process for the whole family and your family have to adjust to the new you but this new you is going to make, not just your life more amazing, but theirs too and it will be worth it for all of you.


AND FINALLY - Don't Believe You Have To Do It All Alone

The final point that I want to make is that you are going through one of the most intensive and demanding things that you will ever face in your life-time in overcoming an eating disorder and just how much that will demand of you. It will leave you feeling mentally, emotionally and physically drained and that's before you factor in having children and the responsibilities that come with them, which can also be more than full time work! So, it's important that you show yourself compassion and recognise that to do this without help is not likely to end well—in fact it will probably just leave you feeling frazzled and as if you are doing badly at the eating disorder bashing and badly at being a parent, even if you are doing the most anyone can ask in both those things.


All I will say is ask for help.


You don't have to do this alone. Pull on all the resources you can find for support. It's an act of courage and strength to make yourself vulnerable, admit you are not superman or superwoman and admit you need other people to make it that little bit easier for you to keep going. Seeking help with childcare, things around the house, stopping work for a while and using recovery support can make a difference and it's a valuable life skill to know when you just can't do it all alone. As humans we are not supposed to do it all alone—after all, we evolved from tribes and a community of support is how we survive the best.


To Conclude

I appreciate that this has been a long post and won't have covered all the factors that might arise for you when you have children and you are attempting to overcome an eating disorder. This process is never easy but I always think that those of you doing it with parent duties on top of everything else life throws at any of us are truly remarkable…


But perhaps you can also use those children of yours as extra motivation because not having an eating disorder will enable you to be more present and involved as a parent than it's possible to be at the moment with one.


Stay tuned for future posts in this series on overcoming an eating disorder in mid or later life years as they will cover the specific considerations you might face when you have an eating disorder to overcome and you are in your mid or later life years and single, as well as considerations or difficulties that you might be experiencing if you have never had children and it now feels too late.



**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,

And,



If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,



available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.




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