The Power of Parental Denial
Posted January 9, 2012

“I think Melissa has an eating disorder,” the doctor said. I can still picture his office, diplomas and awards covering his walls, Melissa in the leather chair beside me. As I stared at him across the expanse of his desk Melissa’s eyes filled with tears and my reaction was immediate. I said he was wrong, that the little weight she had lost was from healthier eating and increased exercise. I didn’t believe him and we didn’t return for a follow-up visit.

The prior year, at the start of 8th grade, Melissa began struggling with severe constipation. Her pediatrician prescribed laxatives and later sent her for an ultrasound, then referred us to a gastroenterologist who prescribed different laxatives. The problems continued. What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t understand, is that if the food isn’t going in, or if it goes in and comes out, the digestive system can’t function normally. It seems so simple in retrospect, but I had much to learn.

Although I didn’t yet know it, Melissa had been actively bulimic for a long time. Never overweight, she had gained a few pounds the year before; the weight gain I later learned that is normal and necessary for healthy development of the reproductive system. She told me years later that it was at camp the summer she was 13 that she began struggling with body image issues as the girls changed clothes in front of each other, compared their bodies and talked about boys. She decided to lose a few pounds.

Having struggled with self esteem and body image issues my entire life, I had always been careful never to comment on her weight and was secretly pleased when she started exercising more and making healthier food choices. What started innocently, with Melissa’s desire to lose a few pounds, rapidly turned into an active eating disorder behind our backs.

It was a long time before the signs of Melissa’s eating disorder became impossible to explain away or ignore. Of course in retrospect, they seem more like flashing neon warning signs that should have set off alarms. But why didn’t they?

What makes it so difficult for us as parents to see what’s happening in front of our eyes?

Adolescence by its very nature is a time filled with change. Beginning stages of disordered eating can be confused with “normal” adolescent behavior and early symptoms are easily explained away. Doctors and pediatricians often overlook the signs as well. People with eating disorders become incredibly skilled at hiding the behaviors and lying about them.

What does someone with an eating disorder actually look like? To many people, the image of a person with an eating disorder is someone who appears dangerously anorexic. But eating disorders come in many forms, with many disguises, and I later learned that bulimics are often within normal weight ranges or may even be overweight. Melissa had bulimia.

Then there is the shame. Eating disorders are considered shameful and parents don’t want to believe their child has one. However, the longer eating disorder behaviors continue, the more entrenched those behaviors become. Early detection and treatment dramatically improve recovery rates.

Although we ultimately did everything we could to help Melissa beat ED, using all the information, understanding and resources available to us, I have to live every day with the knowledge that critical time was lost in getting her into treatment. I have made it my mission to speak out and help raise parental awareness so other families don’t have to endure the devastating loss of their child.

The National Eating Disorders Association has developed a wonderful Parent Toolkit that provides valuable information. Read it. Educate yourself. Don’t close your eyes. Yes, it CAN happen to your child.

~ Judy

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  • Judyb18

    How sad for the loss of your child. As a former anorexic and bulimic(17-40), I can tell you that parental blame does not help.Control over one’s life in adolescence is difficult. The bulimic believes that he or she can stop until the disease starts controling you.
    Pehaps the best thing that can be done for people that are entrenched in the disease is to speak with those that are recovered so that the long term physical effects can be shown.
    Kep up your good work.
    another Judy

  • Thankful Mom

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing Melissa’s story and helping other children to be safe. I will be praying for peace in your heart. I have a son who just turned 12. For about four years, we’ve been watching his weight gradually rise in proportion to his height, while increasing family activities, revving up the talk about healthy eating, cooking lighter, trying extra hard to model good behaviors…and feeling helpless and sad about our boy. His siblings are normal weight and much more inclined to be active. (We have never had a TV, so this is not the problem.) Anyway, during the last months before turning 12, and now for the past few weeks since his birthday, he’s been taking control of activity and eating for himself. He saves his bread for last at dinner and skips it if he’s not hungry after eating all the other food plus a big glass of water. This is a healthy habit. He sets his clock for 6AM to exercise on the elliptical (taking turns with Dad). Healthy habit. He walks the dog daily. Healthy. But… I am so worried for him, as he tries to grow up and be strong. Thanks to you and others I’ve tuned in to the possibility of an eating disorder. So far, so good. But we are going to be vigilant.

  • Fishwidow1

    I am very sorry for you on the loss of your daughter. Eating disorders can make you check on your teenage daughter in the middle of the night to make sure she is breathing. It is always second guessing about whether or not your actions, if done sooner, would have made a difference. My daughter developed anorexia at the age of 13 and eventually became a purging anorexic. That lovely time of life of adolescence together with a diagnosis of a chronic illness of the digestive system fueled the whole situation. She has been in recovery on 2 occasions but finds that the eating disorder is a comfort at times of anxiety. It is a cruel illness which, even when diagnosed and treatment begins quickly, in my case it was 1 month from the suspicion of her haveing the illness to diagnosis and treatment. She (or should I say we) is still battling with another stay at a program looming on the horizon. Please don’t second guess what may have happened if you acknowledged the illness earlier, I have learned from many supprort groups and therapy sessions, it ulitmately ends up that the desire of the patient to do the hard work that is necessary for recovery that will determine if their recovery “works”.

  • TobyTyler1

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am a music teacher and have a wonderful student who lost a dramatic amount of weight in just 2-3 months. It is now 6 months later and she is still terribly underweight and her skin color has changed, to blotchy and purplish in her face and hands. Her hands are ice cold. Her clothes are extremely baggy. She has a self-admitted perfectionist personality, demanding of herself an even higher level of perfection than I do, as her teacher. When we have treats in group class, she usually does not partake. She is 14 years old, first year of high school, and the eldest of four children. Her family is very religious. When I saw her again in September for the first time after she lost so much weight, I said something to her and her mother about the rapid weight loss. She denied it and her mother remained silent. What can I do, as a private music teacher? I do not even have the support of counseling staff and other teachers that school teachers have. She is a fantastic student, beautiful and compassionate girl. I hate watching her waste away before my eyes, while the family seems to be in a state of denial.