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When Your Child Is Struggling with an Eating Disorder

In the Spring of 2018 my daughter began to want to “eat healthy.” There is nothing wrong with eating healthy, I thought. After all, I am a certified health coach and am a huge advocate of eating healthy.

My daughter began reading food labels on some things and I thought, I’ll keep an eye on that. This went on for a few months with no other signs of anything unusual. Until, one day we were riding in the van with my daughter and her two  younger siblings and the two littles asked if we could grab some lunch. I happened to look in the rearview mirror at the same time. My daughter had a look of fear come over her face. That’s the instant I knew that something more serious was going on. I made a mental note to talk to her later that day.

Later on I asked her, “Are you just wanting to eat healthy or do you feel guilt or shame when you aren’t able to eat a certain way?” She burst into tears. Yep, this was more serious than I had originally thought. I told her that I was going to get her professional help and not to worry. We would handle this, and it was going to be ok.

At this time, said that she didn’t feel fat, but she was afraid to eat certain foods and she wasn’t sure what was happening. She said she would feel out of control sometimes with food and feel the need to exercise in her room to make up for it. I knew these feelings all too well as I had battled an eating disorder myself.

I googled professional help in the area and the closest I could find that looked like an appropriate place that also took our insurance was a center in northern Virginia, about an hour and a half from our house. I made an appointment right away. It took a few weeks to get my daughter seen, and in the weeks leading up to the appointment I found out there were days that she was only eating cucumbers and blueberries. I began to sit with her at every meal to make sure that she was in-taking food. At this time my daughter obliged as long as I was there sitting with her.

Finally, our appointment came and after several hours of many thorough questions my daughter was admitted to an intensive outpatient program, which was an all-day program 6 days per week. It was exhausting with the traffic and long drive on top of work, but of course it was worth it.

My daughter was there for about a month, however, things began to snowball as the eating disorder became stronger, and my daughter’s weight dropped as she ate less and less. At this time she was admitted to Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C. and a feeding tube was put in place. My husband and I took turns staying overnight with her. She was there for about 5 days and transferred from there to a treatment center in North Carolina where she remained for four months.

During her time in N.C., she was on a rigid meal plan with goals put in place by her team. If she didn’t meet those goals with food intake, she would be presented with an Ensure supplement. If she didn’t intake enough by mouth of the food and/or Ensure, then the feeding tube would be put back in place. The tube went in and out at various times during the four months and even though we knew she needed this level of care, including a therapist, psychiatrist, primary care doctor, around the clock nursing staff, dietician and around the clock therapist assistants, she also unfortunately picked up other behaviors from being around other patients including self-harm. Maybe this would have happened anyway. There is no way to tell. But some of the other patients there were engaging in self-harm, and my daughter hadn’t engaged in this previously.

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My husband and I took turns traveling to N.C. every weekend. We took off work most Fridays to be down there as much as we could. We got special permission from her team to eat as many meals with her as possible, and I coached her through as many meals as I could, battling the lies of the ED with her.

However, once observing these new behaviors (self harm for example), we decided it was time to move towards getting her home more quickly in order to get her away from the environment so that she wouldn’t pick up any more behaviors. We also thought home would be the best environment for her. Unfortunately, this plan backfired.

Although we had come home with a meal plan and were trying to put an outpatient team in place, it wasn’t’ enough. Once we saw that she had lost 10lbs in two weeks we knew something was up. We asked and she told us that she had been hiding and throwing away food without us knowing. This was partly our fault as parents for not watching her closely enough. However, there also needs to be responsibility and trust on the child’s part or it will never work. They need to want recovery or it will never be lasting.

At this point we had to admit her back to Children’s Hospital. While at Children’s Hospital they reinserted the feeding tube and said that she would not be allowed to return home until she was eating 100% of all meals and snacks. She hated it at the hospital so she obliged and was home in a week.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. she stopped eating again as soon as she got home and we had to re-admit her back to the treatment center in N.C. She stayed there for 7 months with a feeding tube the entire time other than two weeks with no food intake at all other than a couple snacks. She seemed to have lost all motivation, and the ED was stronger than ever. She shut down emotionally as well. She no longer wanted to talk to us as parents and didn’t see any point in talking to her therapist. It was devastating and hopeless.

We had family therapy and group therapy, but we weren’t getting anywhere. My husband and I were exhausted from the traveling and I was emotionally exhausted from worrying and feeling hopeless. It was draining on the entire family. The other kids were tired of mommy and daddy being gone and didn’t understand why she couldn’t just get better. We all knew it wasn’t her fault but it was hard to hear her say things like, “I don’t want to recover,” when we were trying so hard.  

After around month 5, her team said that they could no longer help her and they wanted to transfer her to another facility. This was like a punch in the stomach. How long would this go on? They wanted to transfer her to another state even further away. How would we handle that? It was already so stressful on the family. We have three other children.

Although the 2-month process of submitting applications to one treatment center after another was long and difficult, we are overall thankful that one door closed after another as far as the long-distance facilities were concerned. After the long wait, a spot opened up closer to home in northern Virginia, only a little over an hour away. The transfer was not easy and there were many adjustments that had to be made, but we are thankful that she has opened up to us again and gained some motivation. We are thankful that she began to take in food in by mouth again.

It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. After only one day in the ED unit, she had a self-harm episode and had to be transferred to the mental health unit for 2 weeks. Thankfully she hated this unit so much that it was enough motivation for her to stop the self-harm, at least for now. We are again, thankful for this improvement. This facility is not perfect. We have had some issues with the nurses and director not being kind, and we have had to address this. However, there have been positive things that have come out of it, like my daughter getting some motivation back and her clicking with her therapist.

It has been a long journey. It is so hard when the eating disorder takes over and you have to hear your child say they don’t want recovery. My heart would break when I spoke to my daughter and I couldn’t fix it for her. My heart breaks when she is sad and overwhelmed and scared and hopeless — and I can’t make it all better. My heart breaks that there are treatment centers all over the U.S. and even worldwide because our children are suffering with this — and even more, there are children out there not getting the help they need.

If you have a child who is suffering, please get them professional help and know that you are not alone as a parent either. They need you. They need to know that you are there for them without judgment. They need to know that it isn’t their fault because they didn’t ask for it and they don’t know what is happening to them. There are times that I am not proud of. There are times that I let my frustration and exhaustion get the best of me. There are times I forgot that it was the eating disorder speaking and acting out and not my daughter. Looking back I wish at those times I would have had more patience. So, for you, get help. See a therapist. You need support, too. It wasn’t until towards the end that I realized I needed that support, too. Hugs, my friend. You can do this.

Thankfully, after numerous medications, 30mg of Lexapro was what did the trick for my daughter. She is finally home and living and eating freely. We are SO thankful to have her home again and to be able to witness the freedom she is enjoying with food. We know that chance for relapse is high, and I know that from my own experience as well. Like I said, I battled my own ED. Mine started in college, and I relapsed multiple times as an adult. I didn’t get control of mine until my mid-thirties when I was put on 20mg of Lexapro. For more on my eating disorder story and recovery, you can find my book, Though the Mountains Be
Shaken, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

When Your Child Is Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Ariel Selwyn

I decided to write Though the Mountains Be Shaken for those who are striving to be the person they envisioned in the face of life’s challenges. From never feeling good enough, to a 10-year health crisis, to a 22-year eating disorder, I not only help others see that there is hope but also that there is reason to press on. In writing this book, I try to live up to the quote, “I want to inspire others. I want them to look at me and say, 'because of you, I didn’t give up.'“ My hope is that my openness, realness and honesty will help others to persevere, overcome and never give up.

APA Reference
Selwyn, A. (2020). When Your Child Is Struggling with an Eating Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jun 2020 (Originally: 23 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Jun 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.