In this story, we look at parent coaching for Alicia, whose adult daughter Quinn is in eating disorder recovery and has become estranged. Quinn told Alicia that she has bulimia since the age of about five, but Alicia never knew. Soon after entering treatment for her eating disorder at 32, Quinn told Alicia that she needed time apart from her. Quinn has requested that Alicia not contact her unless there is a serious illness or death.
Alicia feels as if her heart is shattered on the floor. “I can’t breathe, I can’t sleep, and I really don’t know what to do,” she says. “My daughter is estranged from me and I don’t think I can handle this.” Her doctor has prescribed an anti-anxiety medication to help her cope, but Alicia has fallen into deep despair and feels lost and alone.
Alicia became a single mom to Quinn after her divorce to Quinn’s father. Her ex had substance abuse problems and left them in a financial hole when Quinn was four years old. While he occasionally sent a small check, he essentially disappeared from their lives by the time Quinn was six.
“I had to figure everything out so fast,” says Alicia. “I was left with this little toddler and a ton of debt. My job was OK, but it didn’t pay a lot and was part-time. We were eating a lot of mac and cheese or rice and beans for years while I got on my feet.”
Alicia found a second job and got a babysitter for Quinn. “It wasn’t ideal,” she says. “But it was the best I could do. I know the babysitter was young and inexperienced, but I couldn’t afford anyone else, and I was just so stressed trying to keep food on the table.”
Meanwhile, Quinn was an exceptionally calm, capable child. Strangers often commented on how mature she seemed, calling her a “Little Lady” and praising her poise and meticulous appearance.
“To me it almost seemed like Quinn was handling everything better than I was,” says Alicia. “I had no idea that she was struggling inside. It was only when she told me about her eating disorder that I learned how hard her childhood was.”
Alicia feels as if she is drowning in shame over her failures. She feels negligent for missing so many signs of distress in Quinn. “I just really had no idea,” she says. “But that’s not really an excuse. I should have paid better attention.”
My daughter is estranged since her eating disorder treatment began
Quinn and Alicia lived close to each other and saw each other frequently. They spoke on the phone a few times a week. About three years ago, Quinn told her mom that she was going to therapy.
“I admit that I felt afraid when I found out about the therapy,” says Alicia. “It made me feel ashamed, as if I had done something wrong.”
A year ago Quinn told her mom that she was entering recovery for bulimia. She revealed that she had suffered for decades. “I felt as if I was being slapped in the face,” says Alicia. “How could she not have told me? How could I not have known?”
Then, a few months into treatment, Quinn said that she wanted to take some space to heal. “She told me not to call her unless there was a real emergency,” says Alicia. “I cried and pleaded with her to reconsider, but she just said ‘sorry’ and hung up. And now my daughter has stopped speaking to me and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do!”
How can I fix it if she won’t talk to me?
Alicia felt completely stuck when she reached out for parent coaching. It had been months since Quinn told her to give her space, and there had been no contact. “Sometimes I almost wish something terrible would happen so that I had an excuse to reach out,” says Alicia.
The first thing we did was explore the story of Alicia and Quinn from Alicia’s perspective. We took a deep look at how Alicia managed her husband’s addiction and desertion. It’s quite normal for single parents to go to extreme lengths to shield their kids from the pain of divorce, only to discover that they accidentally caused pain in the process. We had to explore Alicia’s story with compassion.
Next, we explored Quinn’s story. Alicia’s story about Quinn was that she was strong and capable. But clearly that story did not fully capture the reality of Quinn’s life. I helped Alicia look back on Quinn’s life through a different perspective so she could start to see her child’s full self. Of course we were limited since Quinn wasn’t involved in the process, but Alicia was able to fill in a lot of Quinn’s story by reflecting on what she did know.
Of course, Alicia was anxious to reopen the conversation with Quinn. That made so much sense, and yet it is important to honor an adult daughter when she is both estranged and in eating disorder recovery. I coached Alicia through moments when she was desperate to pick up the phone and call Quinn to apologize and tell her how much she loved her.
Contact at last!
We kept working together to manage Alicia’s anxiety and understand Quinn’s history. Alicia learned a lot about bulimia and felt prepared to talk about it when Quinn was ready.
On Thanksgiving, Quinn finally reached out to her mom. She sent a short text, and Alicia breathed through her anxiety before responding with a short text in response. It’s important that after a child has requested no contact, the parent doesn’t go too far in the tentative first steps towards reconciliation. She simply wrote, “I love you so much, and I’m here when you’re ready.”
Alicia hoped there would be more communication that day, but she stayed patient and respected Quinn’s need for time and space. Over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, they exchanged a few more texts. Alicia allowed Quinn to drive the exchange and made sure not to make Quinn feel guilty for taking time to recover. But she continued to let Quinn know that she was willing and able to talk when it made sense for Quinn.
Many adult children who estrange themselves from a parent would like to reconcile, but they need to drive the process to ensure they feel safe and secure re-entering the relationship.
Finally, the week before Christmas, Quinn asked if Alicia would be willing to join a family therapy session. If Quinn had made this request before parent coaching took place, Alicia would have been too afraid to join. But now she had confidence that she at least understood some of what Quinn was going through. She felt strong enough to face Quinn’s story. She agreed to family therapy and they began in the new year.
Family therapy and reconciliation
In family therapy, Quinn felt safe enough to explore how it had been for her as a child. “It seems like she feels she had to grow up too soon,” says Alicia. “I had no idea how much that little girl was carrying on her shoulders. She felt as if she had to be strong for me, and I’m so sad about that. It was only when my daughter stopped speaking to me that I realized there was something wrong. It shouldn’t have happened like that, but it did.”
Alicia learned that Quinn started binge eating and purging when she was very young as a way to cope with the scarcity and fear she felt at home. Bulimia became a powerful way for her to feel as if she was in control of a difficult situation. But hiding her true self from her mom, something she felt was necessary, had created a cascade of problems for her.
While Alicia believed everything was fine and that they were close – a team – Quinn was hiding essential parts of herself.
“The best thing that happened to us was the time we each took to work on ourselves,” says Alicia. “When I reached out for parent coaching I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But what I’ve learned about myself, Quinn, and our story, has made it possible for us to begin to heal.”
It’s far from perfect. Quinn has decades of pain and hurt to work through. And Alicia is struggling to avoid being defensive about the way she was as (and is) a parent.
“I realize that I always saw myself as weaker than Quinn,” says Alicia. But now I realize how much she needed, and needs, me to be her mom, which means being strong enough to hold her pain with her.”
Alicia and Quinn are still in family therapy, and they continue to work on themselves individually. It’s not uncommon for an adult daughter to become estranged as they go through eating disorder treatment. And it’s not always permanent. The goal is to help them feel safe within the relationship even when things get strained and difficult. So far, Quinn has not requested another break in contact.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder and need some help, please reach out for private coaching.
This story is a composite, which means that it is based on several true stories. For the sake of privacy, I have changed names and identifying characteristics as well as merged a few different cases together for the sake of sharing the story publicly.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.