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The Quicksand of Perceived Failure

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

Somewhere along the way in every parent’s journey, I think it is inevitable that we all experience a sense of failure. Sometimes, it is the result of a bad day, week, or month filled with painful mealtimes that went horribly wrong. Sometimes, it is when we realize that our loved one has been binging and/or purging, despite our vigilance. Sometimes, it is when we see numbers declining on a scale and we realize that our loved one is moving further away from good health, despite our best efforts to restore nutrition. For parents who have been supporting their child through many years of an eating disorder without recovery in sight, that sense of failure can be all consuming. They feel that if their child is not recovering, then surely they must be failing as a parent.

I hear parents referencing “failure” all too often, saying things like they “failed FBT” or inferring that when their child needs residential treatment, they have failed.  And I want to say that I think that framing these things in the context of failure is both detrimental to your child and unfair to yourselves.

I think many of us can agree that we knew very little about eating disorders when our child developed one, and what we thought we did know was not at all reflective of what eating disorders actually are. We all faced a steep learning curve, which we had to take on while our child was actively ill, and we were fraught with distress and worry.

I also think that most of us had expectations of treatment that matched what we experienced from the realm of physical illness. You are sick, you get treated, you get better. I know that I wasn’t at all prepared for the burden of caring for my daughter, and what it would cost our family, in so many different respects.

In retrospect, I know now how much I didn’t know at the beginning of my daughter’s illness. I scrambled to educate myself as quickly as possible, but the bottom line is that I made mistakes early on when choosing treatment because I didn’t know better. It’s painful to realize that our journey may have had a better outcome if we had taken a different path at the beginning, but I can’t bring myself to frame that as our failure. We did what any good parents would do. We got treatment for our daughter, not knowing that it was the wrong treatment. We followed “expert” advice. And getting stuck on the mistakes of the past would have prevented us from moving forward and doing things right.

I know that it’s all too easy to engage in the never-ending mind torture of the “what if” game. “What if I had done things differently?” I can tell you that going down that road will take you in the wrong direction, away from where you need to be.

In my experience, nothing positive comes from the framework of failure. It sabotages the empowerment that I believe is critical for parents to feel when dealing with their child’s eating disorder. You can’t feel empowered if you feel like you are failing. You can’t help your child if you feel like you are failing. Empowered parents feel more capable of caring for a loved one with an eating disorder, which I believe effectively does make them more capable.

I know that it can be difficult to see other people’s children recovering while recovery is not happening for your own child. And I know that when your child isn’t recovering, you question yourself as a parent, and you want to know what someone else is doing right that you are doing wrong.

And sometimes, the answer is absolutely nothing. The sad fact is that 2 families can be fighting just as hard for their child’s recovery, doing the same actions, even receiving the same treatment by the same provider, and one recovers early in the journey while the other does not. Having a child whose recovery is elusive is not indicative of failure as a parent, it is indicative of the vicious nature of eating disorders, the powerful pull that they have on our children; and at times, of co-morbid conditions that impede recovery.

I see parents in our community who do everything right; and still, their children have not yet recovered. Sometimes it’s a roller coaster of recovery and relapse. I relate to the immense frustration that those parents are feeling, and I understand the tendency to think of oneself as a failure, but I beg you not to.

I truly believe that for the most part, we are excellent parents–even those of us who missed the early intervention train, even those of us who didn’t recognize ineffectual treatment for what it was, even those of us who can’t seem to get our kids on that road to recovery; and yes, even those of us who lost our children. I have no answer for why doing all of the right things works for some families and not for others, but I sincerely don’t believe that it’s because we are failures as parents, and I certainly don’t believe that it absolves us from continuing to do the things that lead to recovery, even if we are not seeing results. People who feel like they are failing may stop trying to help their child, because they feel like their efforts are futile. Please don’t ever stop trying.

Every parent in our community is a hero in my book. You are all fierce warriors. Those of you out there who are really struggling, who can’t seem to find your footing, and who are feeling like failures, have a special place in my heart. I want you to know that I don’t see you as failures. All I see is your strength, your persistence, your grit, your determination to help your child recover, your fortitude, your tenacity, your endurance, your dedication, your sense of purpose, your unwavering love for your child, your relentless pursuit of your child’s restored health, your uneasy hope, and your tireless commitment to your child’s well-being. Try seeing yourselves through my eyes, and keep fighting, brave parents. Learn from your past experiences so you can do better going forward. Don’t get stuck in the quicksand of perceived failure. And know that I am here rooting for all of you and for your children, every step of the way.

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    • Martina C

      Such encouraging words! I remember that feeling all too well, wanting to throw in the towel, and let the illness take its course. But it only lasted till the next meal. FEAST forum parents made me get up and try again. So many battles we have to fight, even those with our own mind.

  1. Marcella

    In my somewhat jaded opinion “Fail” and “Fear” are both four letter F words. And yet some providers, and yes, some parent advocates, use both the words and the emotions. We went into our first appointments scared, and came out absolutely terrified. It was not helpful. The instructions in the manual are to CALLIBRATE the parents’ anxiety, not to exacerbate them. We asked for admission, for medication, for more help – those were for when parents fail. Thank you Judy, and the rest of that five letter F word, FEAST for being there for us all wherever we are on our ED journey

  2. KF

    Thank you, your words are very helpful at this stage in our journey. I still have hope of recovery in spite of the many bad days. What I have found helps me is not dwelling on all the challenges & dreadful days but waking up each morning, embracing my daughter (in spite of her mood) and telling her (and me) that we can do this, today’s going to be a good day.
    To show up as my best self, I’ve forced myself to self-care, subscribed to meditation apps, walk with a friend at least once a week, have my daily salad, etc. It’s a long journey & no idea when it will end, but failure is not on my radar, i can’t afford to let my thoughts dwell there. Love to all you fighting this battle.

  3. JO D

    Thanks, Judy. Your positive and empowering comments were just what I needed to hear right now and have given me the determination I need to continue this long, difficult and ever frustrating fight.

  4. Kate Sinclair

    Thank you for posting this. It’s very easy to see treatment failure as our fault but I’m getting to understand that some sufferers just have a more severe disease with confounding factors that makes it more challenging to treat. I’ve had my fair share of frustration and feeling that I’m doing something wrong, that I’m failing. I realise now, with good support and advice that I can do no more than I am doing and that this is a long game. progress for our daughter is slow but I’m getting to understand her better and will never give up. Thank you FEAST for your ongoing support and words of wisdom ❤️

  5. joslyn biggins

    FEAST and your articles (and IFS therapy) have been the mainstays of my life for the past 6 months of my 14-year old’s ED. Thank you for continuing to send words of encouragement. Yours is an incredibly valuable service to parents.

  6. Sarah

    Thank you for posting this. I have run the roller coaster of emotions as well. The hardest one was not being successful at FBT and hearing how it is the gold standard. For the longest time I felt like I had failed my daughter. It took a wonderful moderator at a parent support group to help me reframe those thoughts. I have come to realize that everyone has their own path to follow. My daughter is 8.5 years along hers and I will never give up.

  7. Nadine

    Thank you for this post. I was in tears reading this because it hit home. I have been fighting for my daughter for the past 8 years. It takes all my strength every day to fight her eating disorder and all the rules it imposes on her. On difficult days, when her ED thoughts are strong, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Reading this post gives me encouragement to keep fighting for my daughter.

  8. Julie

    This was such an important message for me to hear. It is hard to remember sometimes, especially when your child with ED and their siblings are blaming you for your mistakes. It makes it hard to maintain your footing on the rocky road to recovery.

  9. Mary

    You brought me to tears, I have been carrying the burden of guilt for the past 15 years and having 2 adult daughters affected by eating disorders it’s hard to not feel like I have failed as a mother despite all my efforts to be supportive and seek resources. I needed to hear your words and wisdom thank you.

    • Nancy

      I feel your pain Mary and want to offer whatever encouragement I can. We are in year 5 of ED with an adult daughter and it’s altogether different from helping a child/teen recover. At this point love and encouragement toward health seem to be my only tools. Every day I pray that it is enough. It’s a sisterhood of mothers that we never wanted to join.

  10. Jennifer Aviles

    Judy, this is absolutely right on. As I learned in a NAMI class at least 12 years ago, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
    Thank you!!!

  11. Nancy

    Thank you Judy. Our ED journey started when our daughter was a late teen and we are now ending year 5. She “almost” recovered with FBT but relapsed badly. She has been slowly recovering again and we pray that our love and encouragement and support will be enough. She is on the Asperger’s spectrum and has had issues with food since she was a child – would only eat one thing for a very long time, wouldn’t eat at restaurants, etc. Some days it is hard to have hope but you are always a voice of encouragement. You have a beautiful heart to still serve this community despite your personal grief.

  12. Gwen Ackerman

    Judy, I too, needed to hear this today. And I agree with every word. I tell others this constantly, yet, today, in the quiet of the holiday, my mind went back further and further — what if, what if, what if. I feel like we should all print this essay out and stick it to our mirrors. WE ARE ALL FIERCE WARRIORS against a disease no one understands as yet, no one knows how to cure as yet, a disease that leaves everyone is fumbling around in the dark, even the most veteran of the experts. So there is no way to blame ourselves for failure. Thank you Judy and I join my voice to yours.

  13. KAZ

    Thank you for this Judy ❤️

    Some of our journeys are much longer and complex than others and when we “simply” can’t get the weight on
    and keep it on
    and have them better
    and get on with life
    like so many others on the forum seem to it’s very disheartening and we somehow feel we have failed or have done something wrong
    When in all honestly we have tried everything!!

    Then to get the comments of
    “do you think they really are WR?
    Do you think a few more kg will help?

    Well of course it would but once your child becomes a YA or A it really isn’t that simple to do and those of us who are unfortunately in this predicament know too well

    Or we may have other family member or ourselves with some sort of serious medical issue or life/death issues to deal with

    We no longer worry about our d weight it’s more of living a life worth living attitude and managing to do some small task that gives her reason to get up and about each day

    Yes simply getting out of bed is like a HUGE positive for our d who has extreme depression episodes to cope with along with battling the AN monster

    I’ve ended up rambling but I mainly just
    wanted to say a
    Thank you for this blog

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