Crisis in the Family: Mom’s in Eating Disorder Treatment

Mother explaining residential eating disorder recovery to her family

It’s no secret that moms are superheroes. We tend to be the ones that keep our family calendar, do the grocery shopping, take care of the kids and spouse. Moms tend to do it all.

More moms are also working outside the home, volunteering their time in kids activities or other areas, and are also taking care of the home and family. Dr. Margo Maine, who coauthored the book The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to be Perfect, states that “many of the anorexic and bulimic moms I see do everything [1].”

Perfectionism and the Mother Ideal

The idea of the parental role has definitely shifted over the past 50 years. Mothers typically were not expected to work outside the home even 30 years ago, and current mothers are feeling more overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility and expectations society holds for us.

80 percent of adult women who report having an eating disorder, or disordered eating, also had food concerns and struggles when they were young. Research on twins suggests that if a relative has an eating disorder or had one in the past, then a person is 12 times more likely to relapse into an eating disorder during motherhood [1].

The transition itself from being a single, independent woman to a mother is difficult. Managing all the challenges and new experiences can be hard. Often, the comfort of an eating disorder can offer a woman stability in her new surroundings.

Eating Disorder Triggers are Plentiful

Many things can trigger an eating disorder or a relapse into an eating disorder. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and prior mental health concerns can be triggered through stress, transition, and chaos.

Family Eating Dinner

Prior research on family meal time has found that there is higher conflict during meals within families if the mother is struggling with an eating disorder, or had a past history of an eating disorder [2]. Mothers with eating disorders tend to either overfeed or underfeed their children.

The research done on this topic has also found that mothers struggling with an eating disorder have extreme difficulty recognizing their hunger and satiety cues within themself and their children, which in turn can make it difficult for children to learn their body sensations.

Often, as I have seen in counseling moms with eating disorders, the disorder itself creates a crisis within the family. You see children, spouses/partners, and extended family suffering with the patient. It is devastating for the patient to see their loved ones struggling, yet they are caught up in the disorder’s thoughts and behaviors.

Typically, the crisis ensues in the mom entering treatment, at any level, whether it be residential, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient programming. When a person enters higher level of care, there will be a lot of transition and stress of learning how to let go of the disorder that they feel has been helping them manage and cope with life up to this point.

It is about refeeding, or learning how to have a healthy relationship with food, resist urges within the eating disorder, and untangle negative thinking that goes with the course.

As women in treatment begin to recover, they will report their worry of sharing their disorder with family, especially their children. Many times, patients express fears and concern over burdening their family with their secret.

Often, though the family is acutely aware of the issue. In some families the children take on the caregiver role for other siblings or self, as the parent is entrenched in their thinking or behaviors [3]. Other women report fears of guilt or shame around unhealthy modeling of food behaviors and thoughts, as well as being a ‘failure’ at parenthood to their children.

Current Research on Eating Disorders in Mothers

In a study conducted in the United Kingdom on approximately 12,000 women who were pregnant (both new moms as well as moms of multiple children), over 4 percent reported having a past or current eating disorder [4].

Happy Family With Mom In Recovery

Researchers from this study found that the women were engaging in eating disorder behaviors out of fear of changes to body during and after pregnancy, fear of parental failure, fear of baby or child’s body shape and size, and concern for their own emotional stability post-pregnancy [4].

What happens then in higher level of care for moms with eating disorders? Often, the first step is to begin a more healthy relationship with food. It is helping moms learn how to approach food as nourishment and not as the enemy.

Secondly, we work with women to accept where they are at in their recovery process; whether just starting, at a relapse point, or approaching recovery, it is all where it is supposed to be. Helping women learn that they can change their behaviors and symptoms around at any point. That they are beautiful and unique for who they are, their true self.

Thirdly, women begin to learn that feelings of uncertainty, chaos, and love are all a part of parenting, and they are not alone in experiencing these feelings. Fourthly, and surely not the last step, as there are many more, women learn to normalize themselves. To stop idolizing a perfect body ideal, or a perfect mother, or superhero-type persona.

Remember moms that we all get tired… daily. Laundry doesn’t always get done, the house is often a mess but lived in and creates a home for our children. Sometimes we eat a donut because it tastes good and we are sharing in a moment with our children. Recovery is possible, stay focused and remember the small moments with our family are the sweetest.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1]: (n.d.) Retrieved June 1, 2017, from,
[2]: (n.d.) Retrieved June 1, 2017, from ,
[3]: Complex Motherhood: The Perspectives of Mothers with … (2013, December 3). Retrieved June 1, 2017, from
[4]: Pregnancy, Motherhood, and Eating Disorders: Women’s Experiences…(2013, January 23). Retrieved June 1, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on July 25, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 25, 2017.
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.