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How to Help a Child with an Eating Disorder

Editor’s Note: This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. J&J dad Craig shares what he has learned about parenting a child through an eating disorder.
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The first signs that our daughter was sick were the missing teaspoons.

We were vaguely aware that they had been disappearing for some time. We assumed they would eventually show back up during cleaning.

Then one day, there were only two spoons left. Something was definitely not right.

It wasn’t until years later that we understood the full significance of the missing spoons. The frightening, sad, and exhausting truth is that our daughter had developed a life-threatening eating disorder. The spoons were hidden in a bedroom, innocent hostages in a desperate teenage scheme to conceal the evidence of a tortured relationship with the very food that keeps us alive.

It has been a difficult family journey to help our daughter fight her eating disorder, but she is doing better. How does a parent handle this type of crisis? To be honest, we are still figuring it out. But we think we’ve learned a few lessons:

  1. Get help. We often don’t realize we need help, think we can manage without it, or are reluctant to ask for it. In the case of eating disorders, there’s a tendency to think that it’s a phase that children go through – but it’s a “real” problem, and it’s not until you recognize it as real that you can begin to get the help you need. You’ll need to partner with a team of experts and friends on your child’s treatment plan.
  2. Take the lead. We spend most of our time as parents trying to teach our children to be independent. But a serious illness calls for a different approach. You need to step in and make decisions when your child is disabled by the disease.
  3. Fight the disease, not the child. Parents need to learn to distinguish between those times when the illness has the upper hand and we need to be more actively involved, versus when your child’s “healthy self” is back in charge and needs less parental involvement.
  4. Give your child a hug. You may be reeling and panicked at the discovery, but consider how frightened and vulnerable your child must be feeling. So pause, take a deep breath, connect with your child, and make sure she knows you love her
  5. Take care of yourself. When we see our child hurting, there’s a natural tendency to want to do — and keep doing — everything we can to ease our child’s pain. There’s a real risk of burnout if you don’t take time to recharge your batteries. It’s like they say on the airplane: first secure the oxygen mask to yourself before trying to help others.
  6. Connect with other family members. When it feels like one of your children is drowning, it can be hard to remember to make time for your loved ones who are not in crisis. But healthy parents and siblings are the bedrock of the sick child’s support system. The investment you make in others will pay dividends that strengthen your ability to help your sick child.
  7. Find time for joy. It IS possible to find joy in the midst of sickness. In fact, we are closer now as a family than we have ever been. We’ve used the considerable downtime between treatments to visit museums, go shopping, marvel at world events, enjoy the outdoors, and just get to know each other better.

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned on this journey is to see our daughter as more than the disease she battles. She is a wonderful human being, inside and out – and we’re so grateful that she is doing well.

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It can be exhausting and isolating to have a child afflicted with a mental illness – and the stigma that goes along with it. But as we’ve quietly shared our story with friends, we’ve discovered that there are many more parents like us, inside and outside of Johnson & Johnson.

You can’t fight an eating disorder alone. And you don’t need to. There is hope, help, and recovery. One important source is the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), which hosts a hotline at 1-800-931-2237 and other support at

To learn more about eating disorders, read an interview between Craig and his daughter Katharine here.

Disclaimer: this post is for informational purposes only and is based on the personal experiences of the author. It should not be viewed as professional or medical advice.

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