From struggle to strength: Surviving anorexia and the transformative power of family support

Navigating eating disorders and building healthy relationships for recovery

From struggle to strength: Surviving anorexia and the transformative power of family support

From struggle to strength: Surviving anorexia and the transformative power of family support

Being a child with an eating disorder is no fun. I survived a 15-year-long battle with anorexia, the deadliest psychiatric illness. My childhood was shadowed by ruminating on my body’s appearance, constantly exploring new ways of secretly hiding uneaten food, and exercising intensely. During short periods of adolescence when I experienced a relief in my symptoms, I was confronted with the physical changes rapidly happening to my developing body. Changes that I found confusing because they were often disapproved of in the society around me.

The impact of families and cultural stigma

My story is one of unhealthy family dynamics giving rise to long-lasting mental illness, but it’s also a story of hope, trust, and the power of family support. My eating disorder was triggered by my family, but it was also healed because of them.

While I am not a parent myself, I have seen firsthand that being the parent or loved one of a mentally ill child is often a stigmatizing experience, marked by shame. This shame can lead to avoidance, anger and defiance. It almost always leads to frustration and feelings of hopelessness. These feelings are particularly common for parents with children struggling with eating disorders, as they try to navigate through a system that limits access to expert treatment and perpetuates cultural stigma. Albeit these feelings are natural, they can also contribute to stalling their child’s treatment. That’s what happened to me.

Choosing the right language

During my darkest moments, well-meaning friends and healthcare professionals inadvertently reinforced my eating disorder by approaching it with judgment and oversimplified solutions. Worried family members said, “You are starting to look gross,” when (I like to think) they meant to say, “I see that you have been losing weight. You don’t seem like yourself. I am worried about you and would like to help”.

My best friends, disturbed about my weight loss, distanced themselves from me, eventually “ghosting” every effort I made to connect with them. Well-meaning healthcare professionals said, “You just have to start eating”. To them, fixing my food intake meant fixing my brain. Family friends reminded me that “one never recovers from an eating disorder”. The message was that I had to learn how to live with it.

Although the words hurt, I always knew that friends, family and health professionals were trying to help me. But trying to motivate my recovery, they moved me closer to my eating disorder. Implicitly and unintentionally, they taught me that my eating disorder was the one thing I could lean on, the one thing I could expect not to let me down, the one thing that would not ask me to change.

Understanding the complexity of eating disorders

Many people assume that an eating disorder is solely an obsession with food and body weight. In reality, for most people developing an eating disorder, the illness starts as an unconscious coping mechanism for overwhelming emotions caused by highly stressful life events. Initially, controlling what the person eats might make them feel more in charge of their life. Yet, over time, these seemingly benign patterns can turn into destructive habits, causing problems in all aspects of their well-being.

Eating disorders do not only develop in genetically vulnerable people who experience family trauma. They may also arise from bullying, social and cultural pressures, athletic expectations, and academic stress. Eating disorders are diverse not only in expression but also in their underlying cause. Many parents, understandably, ask, “Why is my child sick? What did I do wrong?”. Society judges the parents as inadequate or, worse, looks at their children as inherently broken. With an eating disorder, the stigma is often deeply embedded in the misbelief that the person has chosen to have it or that their parents have pushed them into it.

The power of healthy relationships

Parents do not cause an eating disorder. However, they need to understand that they can be a major and vital part of the solution. Establishing a healthy, trusting relationship with at least one adult is not only the primary means of reducing the risk of a child or youth developing a mental illness but also the most effective strategy for aiding their recovery.

What makes this healthy and trusting relationship so protective? Cultivating positive relationships with adults empowers children and youth to enhance their communication skills, manage their emotions effectively, and bolster their self-confidence. From a neuroscience standpoint, secure and trusting child-adult connections contribute to the optimal development of the child’s stress-response system, the brain regions linked to learning and memory, and emotional reactivity. Over time, research consistently demonstrates that such children not only experience greater happiness but also enjoy improved overall well-being.

Keys to establishing trust

How can an adult be best prepared to cultivate a trusting and secure relationship with a child? According to numerous professionals and people with firsthand experience, there are two fundamental elements:

  1. Effective communication skills
  2. A genuine willingness to provide support

While these factors may sound simple, acquiring these skills requires consistent effort and understanding. How do we go about obtaining these skills, in particular, if we are just starting out?

Educating ourselves

Love without understanding is like a compass without direction; it is like offering warmth but in the wrong direction. Understanding enables love to forge a genuine connection. To truly connect and provide meaningful support, we must speak the right language – a mix of love, knowledge, and patience. To support a child, we need to appreciate the source of their struggle and recognize the signs of unique mental health challenges.

Recognizing mental health challenges as surmountable challenges, as opposed to insurmountable obstacles, lays the foundation for proactive, non-judgmental support. The first step in this journey often comes through education and community support, from experts and those with lived experience.

To understand the language of eating disorders as it relates to the triggers, neuroscience and recovery process, I encourage you to consider investing in an educational community course.

To learn more about what we do at Mind Blossom, visit for more information.

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Pernille Bülow, PhD

About Pernille Bülow, PhD

All articles by Pernille Bülow, PhD

I am the founder and CEO of Mind Blossom. I received my PhD from Emory University and finished a short Post-doctoral Fellowship at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Inspired by my experiences, I left academia with the purpose of creating tangible changes to mental healthcare through technology and psychoeducation. I first joined the multimodal biosensors software company iMotions, where I led the strategic development of a wearable mobile biosensor platform as well as the integration of voice analysis into their multimodal biometric research platform. I now serve as a consultant for companies, often at the startup stage, on the integration of biosensors and AI in mental health tech as well as an advisor to both companies and graduate-level students. I am an expert on mental health and illness and regularly lead lectures for high school, college and graduate students. I have been featured on various webinars and podcasts and am a writer at Psychology Today.
* You can read more about me on my website. From the age of 11, I struggled with anorexia and other mental illnesses for 15 years. I currently live in Boston, MA, in the United States.

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