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Should My Child Do Their Chores During Eating Disorder Treatment?

By Oona Hanson

As with most things in eating disorder recovery, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma. But it’s a common question, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned–the hard way–after living through this experience.

There are so many pressures and conflicting needs that can come into play during eating disorder treatment, and household chores are no different. Families who don’t want the eating disorder to take over every aspect of daily life may decide it’s important to keep everything else as “normal” as possible. Exhausted caregivers are in desperate need of help managing the quotidian tasks of running a household. If I’m doing all the meals and dealing with insurance and getting my kid to appointments, couldn’t they at least empty the dishwasher?

Maybe. But maybe not.

For many young people, the physical demands of certain household responsibilities simply aren’t appropriate. Things like taking out the garbage, walking the dog, or carrying laundry baskets down the stairs may not be safe if your child is having trouble restoring weight or is getting lightheaded. It’s worth noting that in the early stages of recovery, a child who is eagerly taking on household tasks might be doing so because they are driven by eating disorder thoughts to burn calories or “be good,” rather than earnestly wanting to contribute to the family. As much as you need the help, you might have say, “Thank you for offering. Right now you need to rest.”

Let’s say your child is medically stable and could, technically, lift a finger around the house. You might still decide not to prioritize resuming chores.

Remember: recovering from an eating disorder is difficult, painful work.

Think that prickly, angry eating disorder voice is hard to have in your house? Imagine having it in your own head. Our kids are often battling and suffering in ways we can’t even see.

Even with support, it can take tremendous effort to eat–and not to vomit, exercise, or use other behaviors–and that energy must be summoned many times each day.

Imagine the thing that scares you the most, the thing that might make you feel physically ill, the thing that turns up the volume on every negative thought you’ve ever had–and then do that multiple times a day, every day.

Imagine the physical exhaustion you might experience after an injury or illness, where just existing–while your body heals itself–is deeply draining. After eating, resting and digesting are the most important parts of recovery–and these can be tiring, too, especially when the eating disorder is saying you are a horrible, lazy, worthless being for just lying there.

Eating disorder recovery is probably the hardest chore your child will ever do.

So maybe, for now, it makes sense to give them a break where you can.

And it might mean having some hard conversations with the whole family, especially if there are other children in the home. Even if parents and guardians are at peace with excusing a child from chores, siblings can often feel pretty indignant about the situation. Brother or sister gets to lounge on the couch while everyone else is picking up the slack? It’s not fair! They may also be jealous of all the focus and attention going elsewhere, adding insult to injury. This understandable distress presents a great opportunity to let siblings express their frustration and for you to validate their anger. Their outrage is real. They are allowed to feel that–and you are allowed to hold firm to your decisions about what is needed at this moment.

Eating disorders force families to make hard decisions. And it can take some trial and error to figure out the best approach at different stages of recovery. It’s common to reshuffle priorities as you go. And with chores, like so many other things in eating disorder treatment, the choices you make are for right now, not forever.

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  1. Dave Dunn

    When our daughter was sick we tried to remove all non-essential conflict from our home and our lives. This resulted in our not asking our daughter or our other two children to do any chores. We became more lax on other standard parenting things too (what the kids wear, eat, watch, etc.). In hindsight, one of the things I am grateful to anorexia for is helping me learn to focus on what is most important and let other things go. Also, I think we did a better job teaching our kids to pitch in and help out by modeling that chores (dishes, taking the garbage out, mowing the lawn, cleaning up) aren’t a big deal than we could have done by insisting that they pitch in, especially since we knew we did not have the emotional bandwidth to do so in a positive, constructive way.

  2. Oona Hanson

    Thanks for sharing that, Dave. I love how you pointed out that chores can be a source of tension and conflict, something there is already plenty of when you’re battling an eating disorder. Getting clear on top priorities during times of crisis–and letting go of everything else–is such a powerful life lesson for our kids.

  3. Lisa B

    I determined what in our home and life were ‘rubber balls’ and ‘glass balls’…she was our glass ball, the one we kept aloft and held gently and firmly. Everything else became rubber, happy to bounce off in a corner, waiting, until we had the bandwidth to pick them up! This also allowed me to model imperfection and show my child that life is worth living, regardless of the mess!

  4. Elizabeth

    I see this and appreciate the perspective.
    Years into the disorder it’s alienating to have such differing standards. Always ready for sport practice but room is a disaster, desperately needed a pet but lacks responsibility, hours of you tube (or worse) numbing crap yet reading a book too much.
    At a point after it’s defined the family, I’m bored and get pitching in to basics too much – I find it an excuse and disrespectful.

    • Random Wizard

      This mirrors my child perfectly! The pet, the room, the funny videos. But yes, a book is too hard. I try to focus on the improvements: the ED is under control, but the brain is still healing and honestly, she’s a different person now. Priorities change and mental health is the priority now. Hopefully everything else catches up eventually. I think the pandemic contributed to some of this decline as well.

  5. Eva Musby

    I love how you wrote — so memorably :
    “Think that prickly, angry eating disorder voice is hard to have in your house? Imagine having it in your own head.”

  6. Oona Hanson

    Thanks for sharing all the comments, everyone. If it provides any hope, I will share that my own child who had anorexia (and took a long break from household chores during weight restoration and for a while after) is now a responsible adult who works and attends college.

    The comments about reading reminded me that during the worst year of my child’s illness, I couldn’t read either. I used to be an English teacher and have two degrees in English. To say I’m a reader is an understatement. But in that time of crisis, my brain just couldn’t do it. It was one of many losses I had to grieve during that time.

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