"Big Four" Highlights


Dealing with Eating Disorders

Mother of 3 girls tells her own story and gives 5-point plan for other parents

By Kate Wicker

When I started high school, I was on the chubby side and still looked like a little girl. Then the summer before my sophomore year, I blossomed. I transformed from a pudgy, awkward, brace-faced girl into a curvy, young woman.

I remember that school year well. Some of my peers didn’t recognize me at first. The same boys who had never glanced in my direction started asking me out on dates. Although I was the same person on the inside, I started to wonder if looking thin was the secret to happiness or at least to popularity. The scale quickly became a barometer for my self-worth. The less I weighed, the more powerful I felt. Before long I was deeply entrenched in a harmful pattern of restrictive dieting and purging.

It’s been a long, ongoing, and sometimes painful journey toward healing, but today I recognize I’m a beloved daughter of God and have (mostly) overcome my body image struggles.

Maybe you have a girl* who seems overly concerned with how much she weighs. She is obsessed with her weight or how much she eats. She vilifies food by labeling certain types as “bad” or herself as “bad” for eating too much. She wears loose clothing to hide her frail figure. She frequently berates her body saying things like, “I hate my arms” or “I’m so fat.” Any of these behaviors should raise a red flag that your child may be suffering from an eating disorder or, at the very least, a poor body image that demands your attention.

So what should you do? Based on my personal experience – and please keep in mind, I’m not a psychologist or doctor but just an ordinary mom who has faced her own inner demons and is working to reclaim the beauty of creation in herself and in her children – here’s what to remember as you reach out to your hurting child:

Food and/or the desire to be thin is not at the heart of your child’s illness. An eating disorder is not only a problem, but it’s a solution to a problem or problems Maybe your child started dieting with a healthy mindset, but now it’s taken on a life of its own and is no longer about weight at all. Gently ask your child, “Why do you feel like you have to hurt yourself? What are you afraid will happen if you gain weight or don’t look a certain way?”

Don’t focus too much on her eating or weight. When you express concern, try to avoid using accusatory “you” statements like “you’re too thin.” Instead, say, “I’m concerned you’re really hurting yourself, and I’m worried about your future. Let’s get some help.” A child who is binging, purging, or starving herself is experiencing profound pain. Help to ease the pain by encouraging her rather than condemning her. Frequently tell her how much you love her. Send her texts, emails, or write notes naming traits in her that you admire (that have nothing to do with her physical appearance). Remind her there’s so much more to life – and her – than her body size.

Ask your child to get help. Then pray she’s ready to be healed because your daughter is ultimately responsible for her recovery. Unfortunately, even a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder does not always coincide with a sufferer’s recognition that she has a problem and/or her willingness to seek help. Recovery is a process – sometimes an agonizingly slow one. As difficult as it may be to accept, eating disorders are like other addictions: You confront the sick person (also known as intervention), let her know you love her, and then you take a step back, and release her into God’s care. One of the reasons I finally accepted help was because my family didn’t give up on the saving power of God, and they didn’t give up on me.

Don’t take responsibility for your child’s sickness. As parents, we so often want to identify the scapegoat for our children’s struggles. Maybe if I’d loved her more she wouldn’t be at doing this to herself. Yet, we don’t have as much control over our children or the choices they make as we’d like to think. There’s also a growing body of research that suggests eating disorders are genetic and not simply a product of a child’s upbringing or home environment. The good news is that we do have some power. We have the power to pray. You also have the power to free yourself from the burden of why. Why did this happen? Let the guilt go. Set your eyes forward. Take your daughter’s hand, and help her begin the walk into a healthy, happy future.

Finally, don’t try to “fix” your child on your own. If your child is suffering from a clinical eating disorder then she needs professional help. The National Eating Disorders Association has a website and a confidential, toll-free information and referral helpline.

(*I use feminine pronouns in this article since eating disorders are more common in girls; however, boys do develop them and deserve the same kind of attention, love, and respect.)

Kate Wicker is the married mother of three girls (and one unborn child) and author of Weightless: Making Peace with Your Body, which will be published in August by Servant Books. She blogs at katewicker.com