'I didn't notice how thin she was'

Image caption,
Valerie and Shell are very close

When Valerie Whittaker found out that her daughter was anorexic she felt bewildered.

She knew nothing about eating disorders - the only person she had heard of with anorexia was the American singer Karen Carpenter.

And although Valerie had a supportive GP who quickly accessed the care needed by 15-year-old Shell, she said she just wanted to talk to another parent, someone who would be able to understand what she was going through.

"You feel a failure that you have not noticed sooner," she said.

"Her legs looked so thin and I said to my husband 'how on earth did we miss it? How did we not notice what was happening? But then it was just a rollercoaster of hospital appointments."

In a bid to help mothers like Valerie, the charity Care for the Family has launched the UK's first telephone befriending service for parents of children with an eating disorder.

It offers parents one-to-one, ongoing support from trained 'befrienders' whose own child has had an eating disorder.

The charity said it was frequently asked for help by parents like Valerie and, as the numbers suffering an eating disorder rise to as many as a quarter of adolescent girls, the service was much needed.

Katharine Hill, at Care for the Family, said having a child with an eating disorder affected the whole family.

"It can place a huge strain on relationships between parents and with siblings," she said.

"We want parents to know they are not alone."

Practical advice

Valerie, from Warrington, in Cheshire, who is now a befriender herself, hopes to be able to offer advice to other struggling mothers and fathers.

"The befrienders would have helped me; given me tips to help my daughter eat by making the food look less - tips such as boiled potatoes on a plate look much bigger than mashed, and mashed potatoes in an ice cream scoop look even less.

"When we had a training day for the befrienders they all knew and understood.

"I don't think people understand if they haven't been through it - the awkward silences of trying to eat a meal without making an issue about the food.

"It was amazing to hear the lengths people had gone to get their child to eat."

Ten years on, Shell is fully recovered and pregnant with her first child, but Valerie said the 18 months it had taken her daughter to recover was very bleak, full of hospital appointments and counselling for both Shell and the rest of the family.

Dr Ann York, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based who is based in London , said parental help, such as that offered by the befrienders, could be very beneficial, but warned it must not replace professional counselling.

"It is very common that families feel isolated and confused about what to do and very alone, so talking to someone who understands and has been through it themselves might just be very helpful," she said.

"The important thing is that this does not hinder them also getting professional help and does not get in the way of the therapy they are having with a service.

"It should be an addition."

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