Keep in mind that the families I know are primarily those who were pretty clued up. These are parents who generally did a home-based, family-centered, Family-Based Maudsley or something close to it after going the traditional route. These are parents who did some of the most difficult parenting of their lives, and successfully got their kids back to FULL health and functioning.
I say this not to be depressing, and not to judge the decision to send your kids to college. I say this because you deserve to know. I don't think that college is out of reach for recovered eating disorder patients, though: we need to change the way we approach it, what we ask of our kids, what we expect for ourselves, and what we ask of schools.
I think the problem is us: that we think recovery will hold just because we want it to. Because we want to give them "normal." We want normal. We treat this transition as if it isn't the greatest challenge our loved one will face since recovery.
WE FIT RECOVERY INTO COLLEGE PLANS INSTEAD OF FITTING COLLEGE INTO RECOVERY.
In the US, especially, turning 18 and going off to residential college far from home is nearly a rite of passage. Since many of our kids are already - by virtue of the traits of high anxiety and perfectionism - terrific students it is normal to expect they will go off to the best college or university they can gain entry for - just like their friends.
It is heroic parenting to say no, despite our doubts. It is all-out battle to set limits on how far, how independent, and how little monitoring will go on. It is humiliating to attend the orientations at school where parents are chided and admonished not to be "helicopter parents."It just feels wrong to have your loved one say "you don't trust me?"
But we're a few months from the Thanksgiving break, when invariably the eating disorder treatment world and advocates are inundated by parents who for the first time really see the heartbreaking signs of relapse. Every parent sends their son or daughter off with high hopes but ours are even higher: not to lose the ground we so carefully and painfully gained - and the young person probably doesn't even remember.
What can we do?
- Reconsider. Is college the right thing for the child, or is the primary reason because of inertia and social pressure? A gap year is an option. So is forgoing college. And local community college or a school near home. If your parental instincts are nagging at you, listen to them. This may be your last chance to be parental in this way, and your last chance to prevent a life-changing mistake. Each month, each semester, each year into maturity is a stronger guard against relapse.
- Who's in charge? Is it ED? Is it your child who doesn't remember recovery well and like any teenager believes she is invincible? Do you believe recovery means the predisposition is gone and your very young adult is now as competent as you are to assess the situation?
- Does it have to be all or nothing? It is okay to have a contract, a plan, to start small, to do a test, to start out with lots of protections and ease off later, to "be that parent" who hovers, emails, shows up, requires weigh ins, requires local therapy, requires weekends at home, etc.
- No secrets. An eating disorder history is a pretty significant thing. It isn't shameful, and it isn't uncommon. The roommate and the RA and the school deserve to know, to be educated. You deserve to know what THEY think - because a roommate on a diet, a Big Fat Loser contest in the Residence hall, an RA who thinks college students need their privacy except if they are suicidal, the school that thinks the student has to "want" help is an unsafe environment for your college-aged child.
- Have an escape plan and don't call it failure. Taking time off is not failure. Being ready to withdraw from school at the most inconvenient, humiliating, GPA-crushing, expensive moment of the semester is a superpower against ED. The goal of college is a better life - not a better college experience. A better life - a life, period - is at risk if an ED is in the picture.
P.S. Our daughter struggled through freshman year and took a semester off due to relapse. It was a wonderful time, believe it or not, and a relief to all of us including her. She went back STRONG, and all of us with our eyes on ED, rather than averting and avoiding and tip-toeing. She has been healthy ever since - not because everyone stopped worrying about it but because staying recovered is about facing, not avoiding the issue.
Great blog posts on the same theme:
Leaving the Nest: 10 Tips for Parents
Learning from relapse