A Parent's Perspective on Eating Disorders

Mary Fleming Callaghan, author of Wrinkles on the Heart, shares  a parent's perspective and how she and her family dealt with her daughter's eating disorder.

Bob M: Good Evening everyone. Our conference tonight is geared for PARENTS, SPOUSES, RELATIVES, FRIENDS of those with Eating Disorders. Mary Fleming Callaghan, author of Wrinkles on the Heart, is sharing with us a parent's perspective and how she and her family dealt with her daughter's eating disorder. Just a little background, as with many of our conference guests, one of our site visitors recommended that I contact Mary and ask her to be here tonight because she shares a unique perspective that we don't often get here. Although, we get many emails from friends, parents, siblings, spouses on what they should do to help someone with an eating disorder, they don't know where to turn. And they, too, are going through a lot of emotional turmoil. Good evening Mary and welcome to the Concerned Counseling website. Can you please give us an abbreviated version, to start, of who you are and how you came to write a book about your experiences?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: I wrote Wrinkles on the Heart for the thousands of parents out there whom I knew were suffering as we had. I wore myself out going from one bookstore to the next trying to find a book written by a parent. There were none. That's when I began to think about writing my own book, giving at least one parent's perspective on this horrendous disease. The result was Wrinkles on the Heart. Our family learned much during the six years of Kathleen's illness. I hope I can share some of those lessons with people tonight.

Bob M: How old was your daughter when she developed anorexia? and how old is she now?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: She was 15 when she became anorexic (anorexia information). And she is now 36.

Bob M: How did you discover that she had an eating disorder?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: One day she said that she was going to go on a diet and we all laughed at her. She was 5'8" tall and weighed 120 pounds. As time went on, we began to notice her losing weight. (signs of eating disorders)

Bob M: And then, when did you find out this was getting more serious and how did you find out?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Her sister, Molly, told me she was waking up in the night and exercising in her bedroom. She would do sit ups and running in place. She wore baggy clothes so we didn't realize how thin she was getting. At her worst she got down to 69 pounds.

Bob M: Did she come to you and say "I've got a problem"? Or did you go to her?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: We confronted her. She did not feel that she had a problem. She believed she was too heavy and felt that she had to be thinner.

Bob M: So this is 15-20 years ago. I'm sure not much was known about eating disorders at that time. What was your reaction to what you saw?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: We were appalled because she was so thin to begin with, and were unimpressed with the way we were treated by the professionals.

Bob M: How did you feel as a parent?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Guilt, at first. Then anger at her, and at the system.

Bob M: For those of you just coming in, Our conference tonight is geared for PARENTS, SPOUSES, RELATIVES, FRIENDS of those with Eating Disorders. Mary Fleming Callaghan, author of Wrinkles on the Heart, is sharing with us a parent's perspective and how she and her family dealt with her daughter's eating disorder. Can you explain why you were feeling guilty?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: I think parents are programmed to feel guilty, wondering where they went wrong, what we might have done to cause this aberration.

Bob M: And for yourself, what did you think you did to cause your daughter's eating disorder?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: After many months of reflection I could not see that we had done anything to cause her to do this to herself and to us. This guilt only lasted for me about 3 or 4 months, then I got angry.

Bob M: We will be taking questions/comments for our guest tonight. To send one, please type it in the regular "send box" at the bottom of the screen and make sure you click on the 'SEND TO MODERATOR' button....not the regular send button. If you don't click the 'SEND TO MODERATOR' button, our guest will not be able to see your question. Before we continue Mary, here are a few audience questions:

Coulleene: At what point did your daughter accept she had a problem?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: After a couple of years and after a great deal of psychotherapy, she finally admitted that she had a problem.

ack: How did you convince her to get help.

Mary Fleming Callaghan: We didn't. We just took her into the Diocesan Child Guidance Center and to the family doctor. We didn't give her a choice.


Bob M: So let me ask you Mary, is it important then, as a parent, not to negotiate with your child about getting eating disorders help, but just to take matters into your own hands, take action?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: When Kathleen became anorexic, she was 15, but emotionally she was more like a 10-year-old. I wasn't aware of that at the time, but learned later that it was a fact. When a 10 year old needs medical attention, you don't ask their permission.

SpringDancer: You are saying you forced your child into therapy. How did she react to that? Was there a lot of hostility between you?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Non-communication was her defense, which was extremely frustrating.

Bob M: Just so the audience knows Mary, do you have any other children besides Kathleen?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Yes, Kathleen is the youngest of four. Two older brothers and an older sister. It was devastating to the whole family.

Bob M: How was your husband reacting to the initial stages of all this?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Complete denial. He felt it was just a behavior problem and she just needed a swat on the butt.

Bob M: For many families, when a crisis comes up, they either pull together, or it can become very divisive. How did your family react?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: We polarized into two opposing camps. Only when we learned to work together did we see any improvement in Kathleen's behavior.

Bob M: And how did you manage to work together. Please explain the process you went through to get to that point?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: It took years. The divisive atmosphere did not work, so we had to try something else. And that was confrontation, despite the doctor's advice against it. When we did this, we saw an immediate change in Kathleen's behavior. It was almost as if she wanted us to do this.

EmaSue: Mary, what did you say to confront Kathleen, and how did she react?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: She was on a home visit from a hospital stay. She had been home 7 hours and had not eaten anything. We confronted her and asked her if she was going to eat, and she said "No". We told her that we felt that any normal person eats at least once in a 24 hour period, and if she wasn't willing to do that, she wasn't welcome at home. We took her back to the hospital, and we had never done that before. I feel that was a turning point.

Bob M: That's pretty amazing. That takes a lot of strength. I'm wondering if you and/or other members of your family were getting therapy to help you deal with your own feelings and interpersonal relationships while all this was going on?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: No, we didn't. We were very concerned about our insurance running out, which just added to the stress. I was able to write. That helped me. George had a more difficult time. The kids dealt with it according to their different personalities. One freaked out, another refused to get involved. It ran the gamut.

Bob M: How long did it take for Kathleen to recover? (eating disorders recovery)

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Six to seven years.

Bob M: What do you think were the major difficulties you encountered along the way?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Prior to this event in our lives, I felt a parent should always be there for her children. Wrong. When Kathleen was a minor and so needy emotionally, we saved her from herself on numerous occasions. Each time her weight dipped into the danger zone, we put her back into the hospital. After three years of this, we drew a line in the sand. One of the major difficulties was learning not to focus on the disordered person to the exclusion of the other family members, or you end up with more problems than you started with. Many years after Kathleen recovered, Molly told me she had some problems during that time but never brought them to us because we were so unstrung over Kathleen's eating disorder. I apologized to her, but it was too late to help her at that point. Fortunately, she was able to get through these difficulties on her own. It probably made her a stronger person as a result, but I wish I could have been there for her.

Bob M: I think that's an important point you made about the other children...because if you focus all the attention on one child, the others start to think they are less significant, or their problems are less significant, or that you are already "tortured", so they don't want to burden you with their difficulties. Did your other children become resentful of Kathleen?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Yes, after it dragged on for six years, we all lost patience with it and the anger was more on the surface.

Bob M: Here are some more audience questions:

HungryHeart: What do you do when you see your child losing weight and you can't stop it.

Mary Fleming Callaghan: See that they get medical attention and counseling. That's all you can do. We are not supernatural creatures, so we shouldn't expect the impossible of ourselves.

Jane3: If she was 15 when she got sick, how long was it before you noticed she was sick and began to seek help?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Almost immediately, within a month of her announcement that she was going on a diet.


Connie: Mary, do you have any suggestions to help avoid a long-term recovery?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Yes I do. I think of it as a triple threat, self-respect, unity, and tough love. To me the flip side of respect is self-loathing and guilt. Dedicate yourself to putting the guilt behind you. It's a gigantic roadblock. On the other side of that roadblock is good health and a bright future for your loved one. You cannot help her reach that goal until you eliminate the barriers to it. Convince yourself that, imperfect as it might be, YOU DID THE VERY BEST YOU COULD IN RAISING YOUR CHILD. Forgive yourself, so you can move forward with confidence. 2. Unity. Call a meeting and invite anyone who has a significant relationship with your daughter. If there are seven people attending this session, they must try to reach a meeting of the minds about how to deal with her problem and her methods of undermining your alliance with each other. If you never worked in tandem before, now is the time to do it. Think of this as "war strategy" because as surely as I am typing this, you are engaged in a war against the tyranny of an eating disorder. 3. Tough love. As soon as you determine that something is not right with your daughter or loved one, see to it that she gets the best health care and counseling that you can provide. After that is established, I suggest you set limits just as you would for any other phase of the child's life. You don't allow a minor child to eat a favorite food until they get sick or to stay out as late as they want. No, you set limits. Well it's the same for an eating disorder. You let them know you love them and want to help, but that there are limits to that help.

EmaSue: I am afraid to confront my daughter!

Mary Fleming Callaghan: What do you think will happen if you do?

Bob M: That's a good question....because I think a lot of parents are afraid their child will reject them. Did you experience that?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: No. I was devastated because we had always been close, and I could no longer talk to her, because she wouldn't talk. But she always knew we loved her.

Bob M: Mary's book, Wrinkles on the Heart, is a diary of her experiences and edited letters she wrote to various people during the times of her daughter's eating disorder. 

Lynell: What do you mean by limits?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Removal of privileges always worked in our household, but this has to be determined by each family. The age of the child is always a factor as well. When realistic limits are set, no waffling is permitted. The child may beg and promise, but parents must stick by their guns. With Kathleen, after 3 years, we learned that we had to put harsh-sounding boundaries on what we would tolerate regarding her non-eating tendencies. And just one final thought on this subject. I strongly feel that a parent can be TOO understanding. It's not sac religious to think this or even to say it out loud. I know because we twisted ourselves into pretzels trying to be sympathetic and tolerant. Not only did it not work, but she got worse, and we became enablers.

tennisme: Is your daughter really completely recovered or does she still maintain a low weight? Is her mind really quiet?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: She still maintains a low body weight, but she has always been thin since the time she was little. I'm sure she'll always be weight conscious, but aren't we all. She certainly no longer evaluates every piece of food she puts into her mouth.

Bob M: Do you, and other family members, still worry about her Mary? Is that now a part of your emotional life?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Well, I think that she knows that I think she would look better if she were heavier, but we never talk about it because it's none of my business. I don't worry about her now anymore than I do my other three children.

Emily: Mary, was there ever a conclusion as to why Kathleen became sick with an eating disorder? Did she ever say why?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: I think it was because she was so immature emotionally. She wanted to stay a little girl. She could avoid the stresses of teenage life if she stayed little and protected by family.

tennisme: Mary, are you weight conscious yourself, even after such an ordeal? Really shows how brainwashed we all are.

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Oh definitely! In fact, I started a new diet yesterday.

Bob M: So now, we at least have an understanding of the family dynamics. Can you give us some insight into your experiences with the various doctors and hospitals and eating disorders treatment programs your daughter went through. What was YOUR experience with these people and institutions?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Twenty years ago, it was entirely different than it is today. They had to find a scapegoat, so the family was convenient, especially mothers. The literature at that time bears this out. Of the twelve doctors and therapists that Kathleen had over the years, we found two that we could work with. I like to think that today it is different, and that parents aren't put under this additional stress of blame by the professionals.

Bob M: But for some, it's hard to find straight answers. I think that one thing that also compounds the emotional difficulty that parent's go through is that sometimes you can't get a concrete answer on "why" your child has developed an eating disorder. How would you suggest that parent's deal with doctors who aren't giving straight answers, Mary?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: I really don't know the answer to that. I think you have to be honest with them and not allow them to send you on a guilt trip. Parents should do what these parents are doing here tonight. They should try to find out as much as they can about the disorder and go from there. I don't know if there are any straight answers, it's such a muddle. So many things are involved.


Bob M: and for parents and others here, we've held many conferences on eating disorders with all sorts of experts. You can view the transcripts on eating disorders here.

I am interested, how much money did you spend out of your pocket and through insurance to get to the point of recovery? 

Mary Fleming Callaghan: None. We were lucky. My husband, George, had excellent insurance. And we didn't have managed health care then. Through insurance, it was thousands.

Bob M: You are fortunate, because that isn't the way it is today. And many parents are also dealing with the stress of money problems.

WillowGirl: What's it like to be a mom of an anorexic daughter? Now, and especially at the time your daughter was in the throws of her eating disorder? Was their a social stigma attached to that for you?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: It was one of the hardest things I've ever been through, but I don't recall any stigma attached to it. I have always felt tremendous sympathy for the parents of bulimics. I could at least talk about my daughter, but many parents of bulimics don't feel that way because of the nature of the disease.

Bob M: Put yourself in this position know a girl who has an eating disorder. If she wouldn't go to her parents and tell them, would you go to her parents?

Mary Fleming Callaghan: I'd talk to the girl first and encourage her to tell her parents. If that is unsuccessful, then I might consider it, but it should be the girl's responsibility, not mine.

Bob M: Thank you Mary for coming tonight and sharing your insights and hard-learned lessons with us. I also want to thank everyone in the audience.

Mary Fleming Callaghan: Thank you for having me, Bob.

Bob M: Here's some audience reaction:

EmaSue: Thank you very much and God bless.

HungryHeart: I found this to be enlightening

Bob M: Good Night.



APA Reference
Gluck, S. (2007, February 26). A Parent's Perspective on Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Last Updated: May 14, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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