How can my marriage survive our child’s eating disorder?

When your child has an eating disorder, the entire family is affected.  Marriages can often bear the brunt of the stress as partners disagree over treatment or have a difference of opinion on how to handle their child’s eating behaviors.  Here are three tips to keep your marriage strong and your family unit intact throughout the journey.

1. Seek Professional Help

When your marriage hits a challenging time and communication between you and your spouse begins to break down, it is always a good idea to speak with a professional who can help navigate around the tough issues. A couples counselor will not pick sides or try to determine who is “right;” rather, the goal is to help each partner feel understood and validated.  Teamwork is a critical part of helping a child through her eating disorder and it is essential to maintain a united front in the face of chaos.

2. Communication is Key

Often times when parents are in the midst of their child’s eating disorder, one parent becomes more of the enforcer role and the other parent becomes the comforter.  These roles make it very difficult for the child to recover because when one parent sticks to the treatment plan, the other may overcompensate with comfort and allow the child too much leniency. When both parents stick to the treatment plan, your teenager will have a better chance of success because she will understand that pitting one parent against the other will no longer work.

3. Self Care

It is challenging for many parents to pay attention to their own needs because they feel so much stress regarding their child’s health.  A sick, worn out parent cannot be an effective family leader so it is vital that you make time for yourself.  Get a pedicure, go to the movies, or even writing in a journal each morning can help recharge your body and spirit.  When you feel energized and strong, your marriage also strengthens and you can become a partner who is tuned in and present.

Relationships can become strained during the course of your child’s eating disorder, but remember to fight for the ones who you love and you can come through the other side a more resilient and compassionate person.

Sara Sharnoff Chesley is an in-home eating disorder therapist in Charleston, SC.  For more information, contact her at


How can I learn to practice mindful eating for my eating disorder?

Mindfulness is one of the key components for dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. The key idea around mindfulness is to stay focused on the moment and focus on just one thing at a time. Mindfulness can be an essential tool for teens struggling with eating disorders because it can help redirect racing thoughts and ease the anxiety around eating. Here is a mindfulness exercise that can demonstrate how to apply the skill.

  1. Take out a peppermint candy and place it in your hand.
  2. Slowly unwrap the candy and inhale its scent. How would you describe its smell?
  3. Notice the colors and texture of the mint. How does it feel in your hand? What colors or patterns do you see?
  4. Put the mint in your mouth. How does it taste? Focus on the experience of having the mint on your tongue. Take a moment and describe the experience.

This simple exercise uses your five senses to focus on staying in the moment. When a child with an eating disorder is struggling through mealtime, sometimes it can be helpful to just take things one bite at a time. This technique is especially helpful for clients who binge because they must slow down to truly experience their food. While this mindfulness technique might not work for everyone, it is one of many tools that we use in DBT to keep the focus on the present and away from stressful thinking.

Sara Sharnoff Chesley is an in-home eating disorder therapist in Charleston, SC.  For more information, contact her at

How did my child get an eating disorder?

Anger.  Shame.  Disbelief. Receiving the news that your child has an eating disorder can be a very confusing and overwhelming experience. One of the most common questions that parents ask is “How did this happen? Was it my fault?”  It’s important to conceptualize an eating disorder as a “perfect storm,” meaning the perfect combination of biological, psychological, and social factors must fuse together in order to manifest an eating disorder. As a parent, it is important to understand that you did not cause your child’s eating disorder.  There are several factors that may have contributed to the diagnosis.


People who are born with certain genotypes are at heightened risk for the development of an eating disorder. This also means that eating disorders are heritable. Individuals who have had a family member with an eating disorder are 7-12 times more likely to develop one themselves.  While a genetic component can increase a child’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder, other factors are still at play.


While every child is different, there are some similarities of adolescents who are more prone to developing an eating disorder.  Some of these traits include:

  • perfectionism
  • competitiveness
  • sensitivity to reward and punishment,
  • impulsive behavior (predominantly in bulimia nervosa)
  • rigidity (predominantly in anorexia nervosa)

If your child experiences some or all of these traits, they may be more susceptible for developing an eating disorder.


Parents were often blamed as the sole cause of their child’s eating disorder. As a therapist, you sometimes hear a client’s mother describe her husband as “aloof and uninvolved,” whereas the father will describe his wife as “overbearing and too controlling.” Family dynamics are not to blame for a child developing an eating disorder, but by utilizing family therapy during treatment, the family can become a source of support and empowerment and expedite the recovery process.

Sociocultural Ideals

Technology and social media have increased the pressure of adhering to a certain “acceptable” body type or appearance. Now more than ever, young women are encouraged to take videos and pictures of themselves to post online and often receive feedback from people they know, and often, people they don’t.

Ultimately, it does not matter why a child develops an eating disorder.  The most important step is identifying that there is a problem and seeking professional help as soon as you begin to notice physical, mental, and/or behavioral changes.  Understanding the etiology will not stop your child’s destructive behaviors, but working with a knowledgeable doctor, nutritionist, and a family counselor can give you your vibrant and healthy child back.

Sara Sharnoff Chesley is an in-home eating disorder therapist in Charleston, SC.  For more information, contact her at