First, please remember that it is not your fault that your child has an eating disorder. Feeling shame or blaming yourself is not going to help anyone. So just stop it.
Instead of feeling bad and worrying about everything that you may have done (or not done) to contribute to the pain she is feeling today, focus on what you can stop doing right now to support her in healing.
Here are four things that you should stop doing immediately if you have a child with an eating disorder. Actually, scratch that … you should stop doing these things regardless of whether your child has an eating disorder. These are culturally normal behaviors, but they are not helpful to anyone.
First, stop hating your body. Hating your body is not going to make it thinner or better. Hating your body is not going to make you a better person, a better mom, or better at anything other than being thinner than you are now.
Your daughter is watching you when you pinch your belly and grimace. She is listening when you complain to your friend that you gained 5 lbs. She is noticing when you push your food away or eat too much and then run to the gym to “work it off.”
Do whatever it takes to start loving your own body – if you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for the children who are watching and learning from you.
Second, stop talking about other people’s bodies. It is somehow culturally acceptable for us to take note of other people’s bodies all the time. Especially if that person is a woman.
This applies to both positive and negative statements.
Do not say “Wow, she really let herself go – she’s gained so much weight since I last saw her.”
Do not say “Wow, she really lost a lot of weight since I last saw her – she looks great!”
Neither of these statements, and absolutely no statement pertaining to another person’s weight is any of your business. It is not a discussion topic. Even if it feels like a statement of fact or a compliment, just don’t do it.
Third, stop giving food or drink as a reward or consolation. This one is just so hard. When your kid is sad, or happy, or did something great, or did something embarrassing, the first thing you want to do is soothe them.
And the easiest, fastest form of soothing someone is to give them something sweet and delicious. When you say “Awww, Sweetie, I’m so sorry you didn’t get the part in the play – let’s go get ice cream!” You don’t mean to do anything wrong – quite the opposite – you are trying to repair her hurt feelings. But training your children to process their feelings with calories is a maladaptive behavior that is hard to overcome later in life, and can lead to all sorts of disordered eating behaviors.
There are many ways to celebrate and soothe your child. Try some of them listed in this post.
Fourth, talk about feelings with unconditional love. Instead of giving your child a treat when she is happy or sad, sit down and give her your time, love and support.
This is hard. When you have 50 million other things going on, taking time to talk about your drama-filled teenage girl’s feelings can feel totally overwhelming, but it is the single most important emotional you can give your children for a lifetime of success.
It’s true that teenage girls can seem to talk forever, but try to keep her focused on how she feels rather than a blow-by-blow of what happened.
Talking about feelings with unconditional love means that you aren’t judging while you listen, you aren’t giving advice or trying to fix the problem. You are listening with love in your heart. Before you open your mouth, think very carefully whether you are opening it with the intention of spreading love, or if you are about to spread judgement, advice or fear. Being negative about other people is not a part of this practice.
Practice every day – it will get easier!