Today we’re going to hear from a parent who is worried all the time about her daughter’s eating disorder. Her loved ones are getting annoyed, and she is wondering if her worry makes sense.
Worry always makes sense, but how we handle it can make the difference between feeling supported and loved and feeling even more worried. So I’ll talk through what this mom should think about as she deals with her worry.
I’ve been working so hard to help my daughter recover from an eating disorder, but nothing seems to be working, and I’m worried all the time. I can’t stop thinking about what she’s doing, what she should be doing and isn’t, and what will happen if she doesn’t get serious about recovery.
My friends have told me they’re tired of hearing me talk about it. I think they may even be avoiding me. My partner has told me I talk about it too much and he’s asked me to stop. My daughter who has an eating disorder has told me I’m obsessed and making things worse for her, and my son will barely talk to me because he says I’ve abandoned him.
I feel like I’m annoying everyone around me, but what am I supposed to do? I can’t help it! I’m worried all the time. I think it makes sense and is normal, and anyway, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. But everyone else seems to think it’s a problem. What do you think?
Hi Natalie, I’m so sorry. It makes so much sense that you are worried – of course you are worried! Having a child with an eating disorder is incredibly hard, and there is constant uncertainty. It’s a recipe for anxiety. You care so much about your daughter, so of course you are desperate to find relief. Being worried about an eating disorder makes sense.
But the question isn’t really whether it makes sense to be worried, because of course it does. The question is whether your worry is improving the situation or not.
Sometimes worry can be really helpful. We often think of worry as a flaw, but in fact it is a feature of our physiology. When we’re worried, we’re more likely to take action to improve the situation by doing helpful things.
For example, worry is what motivates us to make appointments for our kids when they need help, figure out how to make regular family meals happen, and plan opportunities to connect as a family.
Worry can be helpful
Worry can be helpful if it motivates us to get things done.
But, as you know, worry can also go too far. When this happens, all the helpful parts of worry are overwhelmed and we become unable to be effective or connect with our loved ones. It sounds like this is what’s happening for you.
Worry is helpful and useful at times, but when you’re worried all the time it’s a symptom of a larger problem. And if your worry right now was helping the situation my advice might be different, but since it seems to be getting in the way of you living a quality life and connecting with the people you love, I think it’s time to look at worry a bit more deeply.
I think being worried about your daughter’s eating disorder is working against you right now, so it’s time to make some changes in how you handle worry. What I’m most interested in is what worry is helping you do and what worry is keeping you from doing.
I’ve already listed some of the useful things worry helps us do when we’re facing a problem like an eating disorder. For example, your worry probably helps you track down useful information, get your child to treatment, and even listen to this podcast. In these ways, your worry might be a helpful motivating force in your life.
Worry can get in the way
But in what ways is worry keeping you from being effective? It seems like there are a lot of ways. For example, your worry is getting in the way of you getting support from your friends and partner. These are very people who could be supporting you, but they aren’t because your worry is driving a wedge between you and them.
And your daughter who has an eating disorder is telling you that being worried is not helping her.
And your son is saying that your worry about your daughter makes him feel abandoned.
All of these people in your life love you, so while I imagine it feels terrible when they tell you that your worry is a problem, I really believe that they are trying to help you see the red flags in your behavior that are clear to them but hard for you to see for yourself.
This makes sense. When we’re stuck in worry, it’s very hard to see that we’re stuck in a loop. Often it takes the other people in our lives to start waving red flags for us to recognize that we’re in trouble. So begin by listening closely and taking inventory of what the people who love you are telling you.
Listen to your loved ones
What, specifically, are they saying is happening when you worry? For example, maybe they’re telling you that you’re not paying attention to their needs. Maybe it’s that you seem obsessed. Maybe they feel like you don’t take their advice. Write down everything that they have actually said and then look for patterns.
My guess is that you’ll see that your loved ones want to support you, but they feel pushed away by your worry. Your worry has become front-and-center. It’s dominating your personality and they miss the other parts of you. The playful parts, the curious parts, the resourceful and reflective parts.
We all have so many parts of ourselves, and most of the time our different parts show up fluidly in our relationships. But when worry takes over, it tends to push all the other parts aside, leaving us one-dimensional. And our loved ones still love us, but they miss our other parts. They miss our whole selves.
It’s not that they don’t understand why you are worried, it’s that they would like to also interact with your other parts and they are now worried that your worry is taking over all of you.
Work on your anxiety
From what I’m hearing you would really benefit from working with someone who can help you with your anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder and also, luckily, the easiest to treat.
When we ignore disordered patterns of worry and anxiety they tend to get worse. But when we address them head-on and do the hard work of facing our fears and getting through them we can get out of the worry loop and start to live life with all the different parts of ourselves again.
And I think that ultimately this is what your loved ones are asking you to do. They’re not saying that you’re wrong to be worried, but they’re noticing that worry has taken the leading role in your life and it’s become unbalanced. It’s OK. You can work on this and change the pattern.
I’d like to suggest that working on your anxiety is an essential part of helping your daughter recover from her eating disorder.
Excessive worry is a red flag
Right now, your worry has taken on a life of its own, and it means that you are perhaps over-focused on your daughter’s condition without recognizing that your family dynamics and your own psychology are also a part of her eating disorder.
When a parent has tremendous worry and anxiety about a child, then it’s possible that you are struggling to differentiate from her, and this may accidentally make it harder for her to recover. It’s also likely that your worry is getting in the way of listening to her and validating her feelings.
My focus when I’m coaching a parent is to figure out what the parent is doing and feeling and support parents in focusing on the things they can control while letting go of the things they cannot.
I help parents work on their ability to set clear boundaries, limits, and expectations. I help them build compassion and empathy – for themselves and others. And I make sure that parents are invested in caring for their own bodies by getting adequate sleep, movement, food, and connection with peers and loved ones.
Focus on self-care
Self-care is a major part of eating disorder recovery. And so often parents are asking their kids to take better care of themselves than they – the parents – are taking care of themselves.
I think parents need to treat themselves as well as they would like their kids to treat themselves. And when worry is getting in the way of recovery, I help parents get into their own recovery. That is: recovery from excessive worry. Parents need to work on this at least as hard as their kids are working on eating disorder recovery. It’s that hard, and it’s that important.
It sounds like it’s time for you to re-balance your focus and model what it means to have mental health. Because worrying about her isn’t mentally healthy for you. And how can you ask her to recover if you aren’t modeling what it means to be mentally healthy?
Can you see it?
This is hard – you can do it!
Natalie, I know this is hard. It may be the hardest part of having a child with an eating disorder. And it’s why I do the work I do. Recovering from your own issues is essential to helping her recover from hers.
In so many ways, focusing on your own mental health is one of the best ways you can support her mental health.
I hope you can get some support for your worry and start to connect and feel supported and loved soon. You deserve it.
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