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.