One of the main reasons parents miss the signs of a developing eating disorder is because it usually happens gradually; and whether it takes several months or a year, it does not happen overnight. When girls as early as eight years old are wanting to diet and dieting is now the norm instead of the exception, a girl losing some weight does not necessarily mandate hitting the panic button.
Often an eating disorder does happen just because of a diet gone bad, and to look for more insidious reasons is unwarranted and unfair. Many girls want to lose weight and eating less is a typical means of dieting. It is not uncommon to hear your daughter say she wants to be a vegetarian and that, in and of itself, is not a negative thing. The true motive behind this change is of course the concern and it is not always evident at first.
Adolescence is a prime time to begin keeping secrets from parents and you are not usually the first person to whom your daughter reveals her deepest thoughts and emotions. It is her friends that she shares these with and they may even be in partnership with her to lose weight.
Girls become masters at finding ways to hide the changes occurring, both in their behavior and their bodies. They secretly throw away food, move food around on the plate so it appears they ate more than they actually did, say they are going to eat with friends when they have no intention of following through, hide their changing shapes in larger size clothes, and much more.
Another issue is often these girls have been the model child and most parents are stunned to learn that there is a problem of any kind. They have gotten good grades, thrived socially and in extra-curricular activities and rarely rebelled in their relationship with you. It seems like one day you wake up in the morning and some event occurs where this information about your daughter's behavior is revealed.
For example, a friend of your daughter or her mother asks to speak with you without your daughter present, a sibling tells the secret they have been keeping about her sister throwing away food or throwing up after meals, you see something in a text message, social networking site or e-mail and are shocked to find out what has been going on without your knowledge.
I want you to hear me say this again. Your daughter has become a master at hiding this from you and is leading two lives so to speak; the one she wants you to see and the one she doesn't. You are not a bad parent. Were there signs you missed that you could have seen? Possibly. Were there things your daughter just plain did not want you to see? Yes, most definitely. She wanted to lose weight and didn't want anyone to stop her.
So what is the answer to this guilt ridden line of thinking and questioning? It is simple, yet not easy to do. As much as you can, don't allow your mind to go there. The more time you spend there, the less available you will be to see what is happening now and to be available to your daughter now.
She needs you to be in the present with her as much as you can. She needs you desperately to help her through this illness, whether she knows it or not. So give yourself a very limited time to think about what a failure you are as a parent, because let's face it, those thoughts and feelings will come. You are human, not super mom or super dad, and the questions will be there.
Observe them, admit them to yourself, talk to someone you trust about them and then as quickly as possible, move on and focus on helping your daughter. She cannot get better without you.