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Giving Ourselves Grace

By Judy Krasna, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director

Unfortunately, children don’t come with a parenting manual. I think we all learn by trial and error, using our intuition to guide us along the way. There are always trials and there are always errors. It’s part and parcel of parenting.

When the stakes are low and we make mistakes, the consequences are limited. However, when the stakes are high and we make mistakes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. We are wracked with guilt, beating ourselves up about the choices that we made, the things we said, the reactions we blew, and the opportunities we squandered.

When your loved one has an eating disorder, your parenting is challenged in ways that you never imagined. The stakes shoot up, and all of a sudden they are higher than they have ever been for anything in your life. You feel the intense need to be perfect; you feel that your child deserves you to be perfect in this situation, when he/she/they need your help so desperately.

The thing is, nobody’s perfect. It’s a cliche for a reason; it happens to be true.

Everyone messes up. It’s normal. It’s expected. It’s human.

Everyone says and does things that they would never do under “normal” circumstances. 

Everyone feels absolutely horrible afterward and would do anything to take it back. Whatever you said, whatever you did, sits on your chest and crushes your soul. You feel like the worst parent ever.

I’ve been there. I can think of one night in particular. My daughter was unceremoniously thrown out of the inpatient program where she had been for 7 months, without any warning whatsoever. She came home and promptly refused to eat. That first meal was hell. I lost my patience and my temper in a way that still makes me ill when I think about it. In retrospect, I wasn’t fueled by frustration or anger, I was fueled by sheer terror.

On that night, I wasn’t the parent that my daughter needed. I said the wrong things, I did the wrong things, I reacted the wrong way. Straight up, we should have recorded that meal and used it as a cautionary educational tool named, “things you should never do while refeeding your child.” It was that bad. 

In those situations you have 2 choices. You can either beat yourself up about it and let it take your confidence away. You can let it defeat you. You can let the worst day, meal, etc. of your life define you as a failure. You can let the eating disorder convince you that you’re a bad parent and that you can’t possibly win. 

Or

You can give yourself grace. You can forgive yourself for reacting from a place of extreme emotion under inhuman pressure. You can excuse your behavior and learn from it so that next time, you do better. Behaving differently the next time around doesn’t erase the mistakes you made in the past, but it has the potential to shape the future differently, and that’s what counts. 

If you’re that parent who feels like you’re irredeemable because you said or did something horrible to your person with an eating disorder, consider yourself redeemed and in incredibly good company. You are far from alone.

Giving ourselves grace is a really hard thing to do, especially when the stakes are high. But I think it’s the best thing we can do to help our kids; expect to make mistakes (that perfectionistic personality that our kids have–sound familiar, anyone?), fix them to whatever degree possible, learn from them, and move on. Don’t get caught up in what you’re doing wrong, focus on what you’re doing right and keep doing that. 

It’s difficult, my friends, I know. But I think that learning how to give ourselves grace and be kind to ourselves makes it a little easier.

9 Comments

  1. Karen Mcboyle

    Oh boy. This is right on and this disease knows how to push the right buttons. I question myself all the time regarding my d with Ed The rest of my life I am a confident woman. Not with Ed.

  2. Heather

    Dealing with my daughter’s ED was the hardest thing I had to do in my life. I was frightened every day. I still am. Even though she is weight restored and eating on her own accord. I don’t know that I will ever feel safe from her ED. I do know I didn’t always say or do the right thing and I had to forgive myself and know that I was doing the best I can to try and keep her alive. Thank you for this blog b/c it is a great reminder to give ourselves grace as we battle eating disorders.

  3. Oona Hanson

    Thank you, Judy! Such a powerful piece that I imagine every family can relate to in some way. I said and did so many things I regret, especially before I go the education and support I needed to be more compassionate and more effective as a caregiver.

  4. Courtney

    I feel this so much! Especially the part about reacting from a place of sheer terror. Terror contributes to all of my emotional reactions or outbursts to my daughter’s ED.

  5. Chris

    I think it is understandable that parents feel they made a mistake by expressing anger toward a kid with anorexia nervosa. The scientific research, however, does not show it is a mistake to do so. For instance, in one study, scientists measured parents’ “expressed emotion,” a jargon term that includes expressions of anger or hostility. What they found was that “high parental expressed emotion at baseline does not indicate that adolescent patients with anorexia nervosa will fare poorly four years later.” To read the study, go on pubmed.gov. In the search bar, type in anorexia nervosa and expressed emotion. Eighty-three studies will pop up. Click on the study entitled Expressed Emotion and Long-Term Outcomes Among Adolescents with Anorexia Nervosa, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, November 2021. The other 82 studies are equally interesting. Consequently, in my view, parents should not feel obliged to be wracked with guilt or beat themselves up simply because they expressed anger or hostility toward their kid. It is only human, and probably healthy to let it out. And there isn’t scientifically reliable evidence it will produce a worse outcome in treatment for AN.

  6. Chris

    Many parents tell me that expressing criticism and hostility toward their kid’s extreme exercise behavior actually works to reduce over-exercise. It is often successful as part of an overall approach to weight restoration for a kid diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My opinion is not to let a professional psychotherapist dissuade you from this method if you try it and it works.

  7. Mary

    Thank you for this, I needed it. My daughter suffers from BN. It started about 10/11 years ago and it took us 8 or 9 years to catch on. We excused the behavior (the vomiting) for years. We thought she had a bug, a food allergy, a dairy issue…never ever realizing that she was doing this to herself. It kills me as a mom to know that my most precious daughter has suffered in silence for all of these years.
    We just started FBT with her nutritionist and as I was sharing my concerns the nutritionist cut me off saying that I was saying “very harmful” things. Our daughter was in intensive outpatient treatment over the summer and absolutely forbade us to attend any family meetings or sessions, which the treatment center offered on a weekly basis. She is 22 years old and it is so frustrating trying to deal with this with an adult. If she doesn’t want us to attend sessions, we have no way of knowing what is harmful to say. I have been very angry and resentful since that meeting with the nutritionist. But she sent us a link to this site a few days ago and I am so thankful that she did. I have been reading non stop and have learned a lot in a few days time. I know that I have a lot of learning to do, but knowing that a site like this exists and has so many resources is a life saver. I have been telling myself that I must have done something to cause this pattern of disordered eating. That I am a terrible parent for not figuring this out sooner so that we could have started intervention earlier. And now I am beginning to understand that it isn’t my fault and that is a huge weight lifted from me and I now feel like I have an anchor instead of feeling like I was treading water during a typhoon. I really needed to hear this today. Thanks so much for writing this

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