The unique roles mothers play while facing eating disorders — personally or through their children
Mother’s Day celebrates the special role of moms and all that they do to support their families every day. While caring for others, moms facing an eating disorder experience a variety of unique challenges, whether caring for a child with an eating disorder or focusing on their own recovery journey.
A dedicated family therapy expert and licensed clinical social worker, Becca Eckstein, LCSW, CEDS has treated patients at all stages of motherhood — from pregnant women to mothers of adult children. She believes partners, parents and other loved ones are essential advocates and allies for moms facing eating disorders. As executive director of Veritas Collaborative’s Adult Hospital in Durham, N.C., Eckstein guides patients and their families along the path to recovery. In honor of Mother’s Day, she shares her insights for moms facing eating disorders and how their loved ones can offer support.
The connection between family and eating disorders
While there is no single cause for eating disorders, genetics can play a role in their development. “Like any mental illness, there’s always a bit of a genetic load,” Ekstein says. “Another compounding factor can depend on the way you grow up, and the culture of food, diet and body image in the household, which can shape your relationship with those things.” These factors won’t necessarily cause eating disorder development, but they can make people more sensitized to it. And for people already predisposed to anxiety or to eating disorders, it can influence the development of those conditions.
Unique challenges for mothers with eating disorders
It’s no secret that parenting can be stressful and anxiety producing. For some moms, stress can trigger disordered eating as a maladaptive coping strategy. Eckstein has worked with many patients who try to hide their disorders or certain behaviors from their kids. “They might eat with their family, but purge afterward, or they may distract their child with a TV show so they don’t witness the behavior,” she says. “While the kids might not know exactly what’s going on, they usually know that something is up. I think that it still impacts the family system.”
Another complex layer for a mother with an eating disorder is the food-centric nature of many components of caregiving, such as buying, prepping and cooking food for their kids or helping children navigate media messaging. Mothers with eating disorders can struggle with separating their own well-being or disorder from how they want their kids to live, eat or handle media subjects that are tricky for them to process as well. “It can be difficult to determine what is normalized for them,” Eckstein says. “Their kids may ask for certain snack foods that they have some fear around, and there’s a real internal struggle of wanting their kids to have a normal experience but worrying about that food in the house.”
Eating disorders and the mother-child relationship
Every parent worries about the best way to raise their children, but this fear is escalated for parents with a mental illness or eating disorder. “They might be thinking about how to give their kids an experience or childhood that won’t result in the eating disorder that they developed,” Eckstein says. “Their relationship with food and their body can carry over to their kids, so they can be hyper-aware of not wanting to be a negative influence on their children while prioritizing their recovery.”
Something as simple as a child leaving food behind after dinner can prompt a significant amount of processing. A mother with an eating disorder may consider how to handle the situation carefully, weighing her desire to both show vulnerability and protect her children — should she discard the food? Eat the food? Save the food?
Mothers with eating disorders may encounter unique challenges in mother-daughter relationships. “The way a mother talks about her body or weight, criticizes how she looks or discusses the foods she won’t eat, tends to be internalized by her children,” Eckstein says. “Those messages can sometimes be more intense or pervasive mother-to-daughter, but I think we also see that with kids and caregivers at large.”
Advice for mothers with eating disorders
It is important that mothers prioritize self-care and are careful about food and weight discussions. “If they’re not taking care of themselves, they can’t fully take care of their kids,” Eckstein says. “Being really mindful of language around food, weight and bodies is also important.” If a mother isn’t feeling good about herself or is in a tough space, Eckstein suggests bringing those thoughts to someone other than their children, such as a friend, spouse or professional.
How spouses or partners can be better allies to mothers in recovery
Partners aiming to help mothers in eating disorder recovery can offer support in many forms — from asking her what she needs and being sensitive to the fact that she has an eating disorder to working together as a united parenting front. “It’s so important to parent your kids consistently,” Eckstein says. “Even if you have slightly different parenting styles, if you can come together around the important things, like how to feed the kids or have important discussions, then you can set aside your personal beliefs.”
Resources for mothers facing eating disorders
A spectrum of eating disorder resources and support materials is available for mothers. For moms with children struggling with an eating disorder, a community of parent support and professional resources can be accessed at www.feast-ed.org.
Eckstein recommends that mothers with their own eating disorder seek professional help, whether it’s structured treatment or therapy. Veritas’ Family-Based Treatment, recognized as an extremely important and effective element of eating disorder care, is a treatment method that draws on the support of family and community to help promote recovery. It aims to empower not only the individual in treatment, but those supporting them as well.
In honor of Mother’s Day, Veritas recognizes moms and their many important roles. We believe moms facing eating disorders should receive the same support on their recovery journeys that they provide for their families every day. If you or a loved one is considering treatment for an eating disorder, learn more about our core program elements.
Becca Eckstein, LCSW, CEDS, is the Executive Director of Veritas Collaborative’s Adult Hospital in Durham, N.C. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, having earned her MSW in Social Work from New York University, and Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Violin Performance from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
Eckstein’s experience helping individuals with eating disorders in various levels of care at Veritas and in Massachusetts, along with her training in FBT, ACT, CBT, and DBT, informs her evidence-based approach to treatment. She is passionate about empowering individuals to create a sustainable path to recovery that moves them in the direction of their values. She also firmly believes in treatment to outcome, to help ensure the best chance of a lasting recovery process for individuals and their loved ones.