He told me he felt terribly guilty for moving his family and wondered out loud how he had failed Allison.
The weekend before she was to be admitted to the program, John did something brilliant. Painful, but brilliant. He told Allison that the two of them were going camping on an island with very few other people. I’m sure that this wasn’t exactly fun to think about for either of them, but he took charge. Miraculously, Allison packed her own things (John was expecting that he would have to). She even put her gear in the car, and off they went.
Neither spoke during almost four hours in the car. They ferried to the island and set up camp. Over the weekend they talked only occasionally. They went for hikes, made pancakes, and read books. (I’ll bet John chose an island because he knew she couldn’t run away.) No earth-shattering conversations occurred between them. As a matter of fact, John said he didn’t even approach the subject of her bad behavior or the treatment program. They just camped.
After they returned home, Allison left for an eight-month stay at the nearby residential home. She improved, her depression lifted, and eventually she pulled her life back together. Nevertheless, her early high school years were tumultuous, and John’s relationship with his daughter remained strained. But by the time she turned eighteen, their relationship had turned around. And by the time she graduated from college, he said, his friends were envious of his relationship with Allison.
When she was in her early twenties, Allison talked to her father about those difficult years. She felt guilty for causing her parents so much hurt. She told them she was sorry and that she couldn’t believe they had put up with her.
I asked her what had made the difference in her life. Without hesitation, she told me it was the camping trip with her dad.
“I realized that weekend that he was unshakable. Sure, he was upset, but I saw that no matter what I did I could never push him out of my life. You can’t believe how good that made me feel. Of course, I didn’t want him to know that then. But that was it—the camping trip. I really think it saved my life. I was on a fast track to self-destruction.”
You will always be your daughter’s first love. And what a great privilege—and opportunity to be a hero—that is.
Words, Fences, Silence, Time, and Will: What Difference Do They Really Make?
Now let’s get very specific. Before your daughter graduates from high school (maybe even from junior high), she or many of her friends will have dieted. Most girls go through a period of obsessing about their weight, and many develop full-blown eating disorders. In my experience, mothers understand why and how their daughters get wrapped up in the ultra-thin craze. Dads often scratch their heads—even as dads are crucial to the recovery process—and wonder, “What’s the big deal? Forget it, just put some food in your mouth, and get on with it.” You, men, are so very lucky in this regard. Your daughter, tormented by internal demons (in that active interior life that all girls have), can’t just “get on with it.”
Eating disorders are at an epidemic level in our country. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and obesity. The common element in each is an obsession with food: either to restrict it, get rid of it, or indulge in it. The chances are excellent that your daughter will fall into one of these categories before she graduates from high school. So what can you do to prevent any of these from happening?
First, it will help you to have a basic understanding of the etiologies of these diseases. There is no need for you to be a psychologist or an expert, but it will help if you can watch life from the eyes of your little girl: to see what she sees, hear what she hears, and understand what she feels. Is this really necessary? Yes, it is really necessary, because according to all the best scientific research, no one has a more powerful effect in preventing and helping her recover from eating disorders than you do.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are complicated illnesses. They are incredibly painful for parents and they are frustrating for physicians. To help you grasp what’s going on in a girl’s mind, I am going to simplify a complex issue into a few workable concepts and tips to help you protect your daughter. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the major factors that cause eating disorders are low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, difficulty expressing emotions, troubled family relationships, cultural pressures glorifying thinness, and physiological or genetic factors. Of course, other factors can contribute and it’s important to realize that no two eating disorders are the same; they are as varied as girls’ personalities. Sadly, 90 percent of eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) occur in girls and women ages twelve to twenty-five, when their developing minds and bodies are most vulnerable. It is imperative to understand that each of these diseases must be taken seriously—because they are life-threatening. Anorexia (which literally means loss of appetite) nervosa (which means neurosis) can lead to decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, brain damage, and heart failure. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating followed by some method to avoid weight gain: vomiting, laxative abuse, or enemas. Though harder to recognize from the outside, bulimia can be equally devastating. It can lead to rotten teeth, erosion of the lining of the esophagus, stomach damage, chemical imbalances, heart failure, and death. So if you suspect your daughter has either of these disorders, or even if your instincts tell you that she is at risk, get help for her right away.
Eating disorders are usually part of a process that starts with changes in her thinking, then in her feelings, and finally in her behavior. So let’s peer into her mind and see what she might see on a typical day, as she records it in her diary.
I go to school for my first hour class in Algebra. I’m nervous because I’m not sure if I got my answers right. The teacher calls on me to give my answers and my heart sinks. I’m frozen in my chair. Tim is sitting three chairs away and I know he thinks I’m stupid now. Or if not now, he will in a minute. Ugh, and my shirt’s ugly. I don’t want everybody to stare at it. Get up.That’s usually how it happens. First, your daughter will hear things. She will begin to believe that her life really would be better if she were just a bit thinner. She will ponder and think of ways to accomplish this. The thoughts won’t go away because her friends want to be one size smaller (regardless of how they look), and so will she. She believes that if she were thinner, more people would give her attention, and she’d feel better about herself. Also, since many girls fantasize about being a model, posing for magazines, and acting on television or in the movies, they put a premium on being ever thinner and more beautiful. They diet and exercise, hoping they can live out those fantasies, or at least be more like the models and actresses they admire. Everywhere your daughter turns, at school, at soccer, at home watching TV, these thoughts will be reinforced.
I get up and give my answers. Most were right. Two were wrong and everybody laughed. Why should they? I’m smarter than those jerks. I’m so glad it’s over. Anna and Jessie sat with me at lunch. They’re my best friends. I can talk to them about anything. Anna’s on my soccer team. Jessie bugs me because she only eats salad for lunch. She doesn’t put dressing on it, and I feel guilty that I do, because she’s thinner and prettier than I am. Her clothes are size 0. She’s so lucky. I don’t like shopping with her because she makes me feel fat. I guess I am. I’m a 2, but I could be a 0 if I tried.
I hate sitting next to her, and I feel guilty about that too. All the guys come up to her and drool. It’s sick. I mean, Anna’s a whole lot more fun and pretty. Maybe it’s because she’s strong and athletic. Maybe they think she’s ugly. They must. But they don’t talk much to me. I hate being shy.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the boys and Jessie. I should start eating more salads. I really would feel so much better if I lost a few pounds. I’ll start running. That’ll help.
Let’s pick up the diary a month later.
This feels great! I’ve lost 10 pounds in only 3 weeks. It’s not so bad. I run every day. I’m almost a size 0. My friends tell me I look great. I’m still having trouble with Algebra, but who cares? I read Cosmo today, picked up all sorts of good advice about what guys really like, and I felt really good. I love the clothes in Cosmo. I want to be an actress, if I could just get over my shyness and lose some more weight. I’d be really good, I know, and I’d get to wear cool clothes. I know this sounds stupid, but sometimes I like to pretend that I’m in Cosmo and that I’m being interviewed. But I’d never make it now. No way, they’re much skinnier and toned than I am. Got to keep at it.
Two months later:
I’m confused and I feel guilty. I went to this website and they said that throwing up would make me lose weight faster. I tried it. It was kind of gross. But, it’s working, so I’ll keep going. My running too. I’m up to 5 miles a day. Sometimes I like to run, sometimes I hate it. My dad’s getting on my case. What’s wrong with me, he asks? He says I’m irritable. Maybe it’s cuz I don’t have periods anymore. I don’t know. He looks at me funny. We don’t get along as well and I kinda avoid him because I don’t want him to find out about the throwing up. No way, no one can know.
Four months later:
School’s going horribly. People drive me crazy. They get on my nerves. I don’t want to go to school, but my dad makes me. He thinks I have cancer or something. I hate doing my work. I don’t know what the problem is—I just can’t concentrate. At least I’ve passed a size 0. Food tastes awful. I can’t have it. Every day I leave the house before my parents can see that I haven’t had breakfast. I don’t want to go to school. Anna and Jessie are acting weird and they don’t seem to want to do anything with me anymore. Maybe they’re jealous but why? I mean, they’re much thinner than I am. I mean, I’ve lost some weight, but if I can only get rid of the lumps at the top of my thighs, then I’ll start eating again. I can’t focus on math or science because they’re in the morning and lunch comes after. I can’t stop thinking about what I should eat for lunch. Should I use dressing? Jessie doesn’t. Nope, I can’t. I can do better than she does. I’ll just have water. Lunchtime came. Anna and Jessie came over. I wanted to run away. I hate watching people eat. They are so lucky. They can eat, but I can’t. I mean, I guess I could but I want to be different. I drank water and since I had some free time, I snuck in a run. My teacher got mad and made me go to the principal’s office because I was half an hour late to class. Who cares?
Six months later:
My dad and I got in a real bad fight. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He doesn’t get it. I mean, what’s wrong with losing a few pounds? He won’t hug me anymore cuz he says it bothers him. I know why, I’m too fat. I flunked my French exam the other day. I hate French. I can’t wait till school’s over. I just want to be able to sleep as much as I want. I’m so tired. I better take vitamins or something. Something weird is happening. Whenever I take a shower, a lot of my hair’s coming out. My stomach hurts all the time. I guess it’s cuz I’m eating too much. Two days ago I had a salad and yesterday I had some green beans. I know I shouldn’t have. They made me have a stomach ache. I get nervous when I run too. I used to be able to run 6 to 8 miles, but I’ve dropped back to 3 because I felt this funny bump in my throat, kinda like my heart was beating up there. I can’t tell anyone I’ve dropped my mileage because they’ll think I’m lazy. I know they think I should lose a few more pounds and I don’t want them to think I’m not trying. This feels good, but it feels horrible too. I can’t stop thinking about running more. I can’t stop thinking about what I shouldn’t eat. It’s like there’s a monster in there, running my mind. I need to just sit in my room and figure all of this out.
Seven months later:
I think everybody around me is crazy, I swear. I mean, I think everybody was overreacting—especially my dad. He’s here with me every day in the hospital and whenever he sees this tube in my nose, I can tell he’s trying not to cry. This is so stupid, why don’t they just get me out of here? When they leave, I’ll turn the pump off. They’re killing me. Don’t they get it? I have to lose just a little more. My butt’s too big. I would feel so much better if they would just let me eat what I want. I keep telling them: let me alone for 2 days and I’ll eat. What is wrong with these people?
I don’t know what happened but all of a sudden black came into my eyes, my ears were ringing, and my head hurt real bad. My dad says I passed out and fell off the bed. He says that some doctors ran in and hooked me up to machines. They even put something in my mouth so I could breathe. There were buzzers and whispers, tubes and wires. Someone was shouting at someone else about an injection of something. I can’t really remember much. All I know is that they’re crazy, they’re all crazy. Don’t they get it?
Now, there is nothing wrong with eating right and exercising, as long as they’re done for the right reasons and in moderation. But at-risk girls go to extremes. More than that, their characters change. An at-risk girl becomes intensely jealous of other girls who are popular and get all the attention. She thinks she’s not popular because she’s fat, or because there’s something else wrong with her. She doubts herself, is full of anxiety, and is unsure if she can ever become popular. In an effort to feel better, prettier, sexier, to become more popular and get more attention, she diets and she exercises. Then her diet becomes more restrictive, then she starts starving herself, and then she starts forcing herself to vomit.
Researchers believe that eating disorders are hard to detect because most of them are subclinical. Girls hide their eating disorders so well. Even while they are in a mental and emotional cage, stuck with obsessive thoughts and behaviors, they try to hide. It’s especially hard for dads to understand that their daughters’ addiction to starving feels so good to them. It’s not like being addicted to alcohol or drugs, which have immediate physical warning signs that addiction will lead to misery—hangovers, “bad trips,” crashes after drug-induced “highs.” Starving, at least initially, brings great rewards. People comment on how much weight girls lose, how good they look.
Here’s the good news: research also shows that you fathers, if you get involved and stay involved with your daughters, can play a pivotal role in preventing these horrible diseases, and your involvement is also crucial in curing them. Let me say right up front that eating disorders are not a father’s fault. They are complicated and many factors play a role in their appearance. But always remember that the strength of your relationship with your daughter can have a profound effect on preventing an eating disorder, curbing its progression, or healing your daughter if it catches hold.
Here are some practical things that you can do.
Make Time Count
The purpose of your time with her is to help her walk away feeling better about who she is. Research shows that daughters who feel a stronger emotional connection with their fathers feel more attached to them. And the more attached she feels to you, the lower the likelihood that she will be depressed or have an eating disorder. One study concluded, “The asymptomatic group reported the lowest levels of depression and the highest levels of paternal attachment security.”
So how do you form that strong attachment? First, when you are with her, pay attention to her. Don’t tune her out and think about something else while she’s talking, don’t ignore her when she’s sitting next to you at a baseball game, and don’t think she won’t notice if you don’t focus on her. Do activities that the two of you can enjoy together. Sure, there will be times when she’ll drag you to the mall or you’ll drag her to a car show. That’s okay. But no matter where you are, make sure she knows that you know she’s there. Ask her questions and listen to her. Girls hate feeling invisible. Without your attention, they feel unloved and insecure. Don’t make the mistake of spending too little time or paying too little attention to your daughter. You could regret it the rest of your life.
Don’t worry if your time doesn’t go smoothly. Take her for a stroll in the park. If you end up arguing about her boyfriend, that’s all right, because even arguing is a form of connection. You wouldn’t argue with her if you didn’t care about her—something she’ll recognize, whether she confesses it later or not. Arguments aren’t necessary for you and your daughter to figure each other out, but they don’t necessarily hurt either. The one rule is that when the argument is over, it’s over. Don’t pick at it. End it, make up, and move on—all before the sun sets. And then take her out again.
When you take her out, you don’t have to go far. Ask her to sit on the back deck with you, or help you in the kitchen, or work with you in the garage—even if it’s just for a few minutes. The point is, when you show a genuine interest in being with her, she feels more attached to you. So give her time and attention, and you will come to see in short order that she really feels loved by you.
Listen to Her
Girls like to talk more than boys—including dads—do. It’s healthy for girls to talk a lot, but it can be a problem for you because men are experts at tuning people out. You have a lot on your mind, you’re less verbal than women are, and all of us, particularly when we’re really busy, have a tendency not to give people our full attention.
So when you’re together, she’ll probably do most of the talking. Just listen patiently—and don’t try to fake it. Daughters can tell right away when dads aren’t listening. Exactly what you don’t want to happen—have her get frustrated, give up, and emotionally distance herself from you—is exactly what will happen if she thinks you’re not listening. Your job is to secure her attachment to you, and you do that by spending time with her and listening.
I can guarantee you one thing: if you listen to your daughter attentively for ten minutes every day, by the end of the month you’ll have a completely new relationship with her. Do what you would do naturally, as a man: spend more time listening than talking. If you listen, she’ll feel loved. You’ll be special to her because she knows better than anyone that most people don’t listen. The emotional life of kids is egocentric, and that’s where her friends are developmentally. So your daughter is dying to be heard. You don’t need to agree with her, you don’t need to have snappy retorts, and if you’re called upon to untangle some very twisted thinking, don’t worry. The very fact that you’re there and spending time with her means that a lot of her confused logic will probably resolve itself on its own.
If you stay with her, look at her, and listen to her, she’ll keep coming back for more. Her self-esteem will soar, her sense of loneliness will disappear, and she’ll become more comfortable expressing her feelings. Finally, because you, the most important man in her life, obviously like being with her, she will feel more attractive. She’ll think that boys who don’t want to be with her have a problem (because you’re smarter and more mature than they are). That’s a good attitude for her to have, and one that can protect her in the long run.
Fence Her In
Boundaries and fences are a must for girls, particularly during the teen years. Remember that whatever she says, the very fact that you thoughtfully and consistently enforce rules of behavior makes her feel loved and valued. She knows that these rules are proof that you care. Equally important, they train her to build boundaries for herself and teach her that such boundaries are necessary. From your rules (and your own behavior) she will learn what is acceptable and what is not, what is good and what is bad, and what she will and won’t do.
Many girls with eating disorders are kind, smart, and want to please others. Let your daughter know that the person she has to please is you. Let her know that your standards are hers, and that she is right to uphold them regardless of what her friends do. Guide her and help her reject harmful behaviors. Make it a habit and she will too. Girls who have been encouraged to be strong athletically, emotionally, intellectually, and physically learn to take over the role of encouraging themselves to succeed. They don’t suddenly go crazy or become weak-willed. The same is true with your daughter’s character. The discipline and standards, the fences and boundaries that you have integrated into her life will become her own.
The Importance of Words
We’ve talked about the importance of listening; equally important is what you say. What you say can actually help stave off eating disorders. Here’s the key: Listen hard and long. Then listen some more. Try to understand what she’s up against, what’s going on inside her, and what struggles she feels. Remember that when you’re a kid, very small things can seem like very big ones. Dads are important to help daughters put things in perspective.
As a father, you might see yourself primarily as a provider, but you also have a powerful role as a teacher. In fact, it’s your biggest role. So go ahead: don’t hoard your wisdom, share it with her. Give it to her in pieces, when you think she’s ready for it, when it’s relevant to whatever she’s struggling with.
Be calm, patient, and frank. Tell her that women in magazines aren’t the best role models, that people who judge everyone on their looks probably have terrible self-esteem issues. Tell her that what matters is not how thin someone is, but what her character is. And tell her what is great about her, what you like about her, what you hope for her.
Here are some extremely important don’ts. They apply to you and they apply to any close friend or relative interacting with your daughter, so feel comfortable telling other adults what they can and cannot say to her. That’s your right.
1. Don’t comment frequently on how she looks.
2. Don’t comment on your own need to diet.
3. Don’t make derogatory comments about her body. Many fathers think they are being cute when they tell their daughters they have cute butts, strong thighs, and so on. Some get quite crude and name their daughters’ body parts. Don’t. It will come back to haunt both of you.
4. Don’t comment frequently about her clothes. Yes, you should have standards for what she can and can’t wear, and about makeup. But you don’t ever want to communicate to her that appearance is a high priority. (This is one reason why school uniforms are a good idea. They set a basic standard for neatness and appearance, while establishing right away that everyone is equal and that focusing on dress sizes and styles is irrelevant.) Your daughter is just a kid and she really wants you to be happy with her. Let her know that you are, and that what matters is her, not what she wears.
5. Don’t constantly focus on the importance of exercise. Yes, healthy exercise is important, but many Americans are egocentric about their exercise. They do it because they want to look good. Be very careful.
6. Don’t make her feel she needs to do things to get your attention. Give it to her naturally, just as part of everyday life. Your daughter craves your attention and will do anything she can to get it. If you talk constantly about something, she’ll head in that direction. So be careful what themes you reiterate to her; think about where they might lead. She’s watching you, and she wants you to watch her.
The Importance of Will
Loving is hard. It might start off easy, but difficult kids, sick kids, daughters with attention deficit disorders or eating disorders can make love seem downright painful, requiring all the determination and willpower you can muster. Inevitably, there will be times when your daughter will drive you crazy, when you can’t understand why she doesn’t just stop emoting, or, if she has an eating disorder, why she doesn’t stop starving herself, stop vomiting, stop exercising obsessively, stop being sullen and snippy. But willpower tells you to bottle up your rage and frustration in bad times, just as it tells you to bottle up your private tears when you see your daughter in her first formal gown, at her first piano recital, or when another girl calls her “fatty” on the playground.
To love your daughter well, to draw her close to you, to strengthen the bond between the two of you, you must have a will of steel. There will be times when you’ll want to walk out. Don’t. Take a break instead. There will be times when you’ll want to scream. Don’t. Have a plan for when you think you’re going to lose it—and practice it. There will be times when you don’t feel like expressing your love for your daughter. But do it. It will make you both feel better.
Think about the kind of dad you want to be. Sure, it will take hard work. But love isn’t just about feeling good. It’s about doing what you don’t want to do, over and over again, if it needs to be done, for the sake of someone else. Love is really about self-sacrifice.
At the beginning of her life, she will feel your love. At the end of her life, you will be on her mind. And what happens in between is up to you. Love her extraordinarily. This is the heart of great fathering.