Teen Daughter Denies Having a Problem With Disordered Eating

By October 15, 2012

My daughter is currently 17 years old. Her disorder began when she was 13 years old; she was a little overweight and vowed to lose weight and become a “new person” upon returning to school after summer. She dieted all summer and reached the goal weight she thought she had wanted to be. Since then, she’s been anorexic, then “orthorexic” not eating any fat, now she’s moved on to being vegetarian but has been chewing and spitting out huge amounts of sweets. She has only had 2 periods; one brought on medically and one on her own. I never see her eat meals (she claims she eats at work, school, etc.) but only find evidence of the chewing and spitting huge amounts of candy and ice cream. We’ve been to several therapists and treatment centers but we always back out after a couple of months because she says she doesn’t need help. Is there a way I can help her or get her help even though most of the time she doesn’t think she has a problem (or won’t admit it)? I realize she has to want help but it’s killing me to see her like this. We’ve pretty much “lost” our daughter and we feel instead of having a family of 4, we have a family of 3. Her obsession has totally changed who she is – she used to value honesty and integrity and family but now seems like all she does is lie and sneak and think of reasons not to be with her family. She’s a beautiful girl and I believe her weight is perfect now (maybe 5 lbs under) but she thinks she’s fat. Please give me any suggestions – she will be going to college in another year or so (she’s a junior) and I know this can just get bigger if she is on her own. She is an honor student with a 4.0 GPA and will likely get a scholarship – I would hate to see this eating disorder ruin what she has worked so hard to attain. – Liz

Dear Liz,

My heart hurts for you in your difficult situation. Unfortunately, your feelings of helplessness and confusion are shared by so many parents who are watching their child suffer from disordered eating. It is especially difficult to see the personality and basic values of your daughter change as she becomes more and more preoccupied with food and weight. This is, of course, one reason that we hate to see teens dieting at early ages. It can begin a dangerous emotional and physical escalation.

It sounds as though you have had contact with several clinicians and treatment centers. Since your daughter’s struggle has been so long standing (over four years) and you haven’t seen her personal happiness improved AND since she is a driven student with a perfect GPA, I can understand your concern about college. Have any of her therapists suggested postponing college, if she is not emotionally and physically stable enough to deal with the increased stress? This would be a very sensitive and difficult decision to consider. I would suggest you undertake it only with careful consultation with professionals. Of course, it should never be presented to your daughter as a threat, but a sincere question to be explored.

Postponing college is only one possibility for your daughter, but it is one that many young people have made. And generally, those individuals and their families are so grateful that they took time out in order to become healthier. I’ve worked with college students for many years. It is incredibly difficult for a young woman who is struggling to meet the social and academic demands of college. She might pull great grades. But at what cost?

I am in no way recommending this action for your child. Again, this is only ONE perspective to consider when many other efforts have failed. The issue of college provides an opportunity to re-open a conversation of your concerns for her.

Also, you brought up a very good point, Liz, regarding ending treatment prematurely. It would be advisable to contract with your daughter to make a commitment to getting help over several months. Some parents contract with their teenage child to participate in therapy in preparation for college. I would also strongly suggest an appointment with her physician to discuss her dysmennorhea or infrequent periods. You may know that osteoporosis is a big risk if your daughter is not having her period. This should be discussed with a physician.

You might also find insight in the book Chasing Silhouettes:How to Help a Loved One Battling and Eating Disorder.

And finally, remember, although you love your daughter tremendously, you are limited in how much you can choose for her. I wish you peace in your journey.