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Why can’t you just EAT? What I wish I’d known

Struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or any eating disorder is a hall-of-mirrors world where nothing is as it seems. Here's what this mother wishes someone had told her.

Melanie Haiken and her daughter Melia

By Melanie Haiken

Outside the world or eating disorders, no one understands — or can even imagine — what you and your child are going through, partly because it means unlearning a lot of common assumptions about what an eating disorder is and how different it can appear, depending on your child.

(Read Melanie's story about helping her daughter Melia overcome her eating disorder: Hall of mirrors: my daughter's battle with anorexia)

Here’s what I wish somebody had told me:

• Everything you think you know about your child, raising a teenager, and eating disorders — check it at the door.

• It's not about the food. Not eating is a symptom of a bigger problem –— and just trying to get your child to eat won't work.

• An eating disorder is a symptom, not a cause, of your child's distress.

• Therapists still don't know why some kids develop eating disorders and others don't. No one can definitively answer the question, “Why my child?”

• Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are considered addictive behaviors.

• A family history of alcoholism or addiction raises a child's risk for eating disorders.

• Kids with eating disorders are secretive and often incredibly tricky and will do or say just about anything to hide their behaviors. Example: Watch out for taking showers or going for walks right after meals, as these are common ways to hide purging behavior.

• Your friends and family likely mean well, but they will still say tactless, unhelpful things, misunderstand your feelings, and second-guess your choices.

• Struggling with an eating disorder makes a child very angry, but you’re just the punching bag. She's mad at herself, at the entire situation, and at you for your role in it.

• Helping a child with an eating disorder is both painful and exhausting, and the risk of burnout is high. Do what you can to take care of yourself and find sources of support and respite.

• Some therapists and treatment approaches, no matter how highly recommended, aren't right for your child. Trust your instincts and don't be afraid to try something new.

• Because eating disorders are in some ways akin to an addiction, these behaviors may never be entirely cured. Like sober alcoholics, people in recovery from eating disorders need lifelong vigilance and support.

• Family involvement works. Research shows family participation is key to successful recovery — and the hours, months, even years you spend in support groups and family therapy are a gift to your child and to yourself, offering refuge from the guilt, shame, and isolation that can haunt you.

Links to learn more

- Signs of an eating disorder
- Facts about eating disorders
- Eating disorder statistics
- Quiz: Are you at risk for anorexia?
- Hotlines and referral services
- Environmental and genetic risk factors for eating disorders
- 8 resources for more information

Melanie Haiken is a writer, editor, and mother of two daughters. Her stories have appeared in numerous national magazines and websites including More, Fitness, Yoga Journal, Women’s Day, Ladies Home Journal, and She lives in San Rafael, California.