If you live with a teenager, then you have probably noticed that it can be very challenging to connect with her or him. While it might have been easy to find things to do together when she was younger, as she grows up, it can be harder and harder to find common interests. But connection is more important than ever as she heals from her disorder.
Volunteering for a cause that she believes is important may be a great way to connect with a teen healing from an eating disorder like bulimia, binge eating disorder or anorexia.
Volunteering together puts you in neutral territory and takes the focus away from your relational dynamics at home, the work your family is doing in therapy, and her own body and mind. Simply getting away together, without the pressures of everyday life, and broadening both of your perspectives, may be very healing for both of you.
Here is a video we have about one child’s experience volunteering with horses:
Here are some of the benefits of volunteering:
Volunteering is a great way to build connection with the community and with each other. Almost all volunteering opportunities provide a way for your teen to meet people outside of your typical socio/economic group. While your social circle, and that of your teen, is likely somewhat homogenous, volunteering provides an opportunity to see many different types of people working together for a common goal. It also helps your teen see you interact with different types of people. In the right environment, your teen may even learn to respect the skills and talents you have that drive her crazy at home when she sees them exhibited in a volunteer community.
Several scientific studies have linked volunteering to increased happiness. Scientists have even measured hormones and brain activity and noted that being helpful delivers immense pleasure. There is also the gratitude effect – we naturally learn to see the world through more grateful eyes when we volunteer. Of course, decreased loneliness and increased sense of community have also both been shown to increase happiness. Whatever the reason, if volunteering can increase your child’s happiness level, that’s a good thing!
Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
Volunteering has been shown to have a profound impact on people’s overall psychological well-being. Stress and anxiety can dissipate when working alongside others towards a common goal. Working with animals has specifically been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, depression may decrease as you build connections with others and develop a support system.
Your teen may act as if she knows everything, but there is a very good chance that she is hiding a lot of self-doubt about herself. When in her eating disorder, she has distorted views of the world and about herself that are harmful. Volunteering increases self-confidence and allows her to put her energy into something other than her body. Her role as a volunteer can give her a sense of pride and identity beyond her body. Volunteering also provides a strong sense of purpose, which has been shown to positively impact mood and mental health.
Here is a video some young volunteers made about their work with rescue horses:
Some causes may be a better fit than others. For example, food-based volunteering opportunities may not be a great idea if your child is triggered by food. Volunteering with animals may be soothing in some environments, but distressing in others. Work with your child to identify a cause that is meaningful to him or her, and then work with his or her treatment team to ensure the fit is appropriate. A good resource for finding volunteering opportunities is VolunteerMatch.org.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.