If your teenager has an eating disorder, you may feel as if you can’t trust them right now. And it’s true that you may need to supervise their eating disorder behaviors and intervene to keep them safe. At the same time, they are individuals with hearts and minds of their own. And adolescence is a critical time of developing into the adult they will become. How do you continue to nurture who they are while keeping them safe?
Many times we parent either from in front of or behind our children. We tell them what to do and how to do it up front and then nag them from behind to make it happen. This parenting method becomes more and more difficult as our teenagers grow into adulthood. It is impossible to control them as they evolve into adults, and trying to control your child will break their trust in you and themselves. Instead, we want to seek ways to walk respectfully beside our teenagers, helping them figure out how best to navigate the world given their unique temperament, experiences, and point of view.
Use these scripts:
- At the dinner table when behavior is getting out of control
- When you need to set boundaries – fast!
- After something happened so you can calmly review the triggers and events
Here are three critical elements of building a trust with your teenager who has an eating disorder:
Look for ways to connect with your teenager every time you interact. Connection can be big or small, physical or verbal. A small physical connection is pausing what you are doing and making eye contact when you speak to them. If you are driving somewhere together, consider making a no devices in the car rule. Just being device-free will mean they notice that they are physically in the same space as you.
When you first start to build connection with your teenager, it will be awkward. Make no mistake that they will resist your attempts to connect. They will fight back if you set aside non-device times. They will fight back if you say that you are going on a family hike together, no excuses. They will fight back if you ask them how they are feeling, or how a therapy session went.
But stick with it. Connecting with teenagers is not easy or straightforward, but it is well worth it. Don’t let your ego or damaged feelings stop you from consistently pursuing this critical parenting element. Through these acts of connection, you will build trust with your teenager.
Provide a safe, challenging and predictable environment for your teenager. They should feel as if they can count on specific behaviors and situations. It is within safety and predictability that they find healthy ways to explore their world physically and intellectually. Start with eating and feeding. Focus on consistent and pleasant family meals and treat food with respect.
You knew this when your child was small. You knew how important it was to have some sort of schedule and to minimize major disruptions in your child’s life. As they grow, we tend to forget how important consistency of environment is to our kids. No matter how old they are, they still want a sense of safety at home. Try to maintain some schedules and routines that they can count on so they feel safe.
Within a safe environment, your teenager will learn to trust that they can count on you for stability. This means that they will be more likely to seek your counsel when teenage risk-taking behavior opportunities arise. Rather than feeling as if they need to lie to you or hide their behaviors, they will trust you enough to stay sturdy through the storms of adolescence.
Having respect for your teenager does not mean that you don’t have boundaries, rules and discipline. The difference is that we present discipline from a place of respect vs. a place of control.
Establish defined rules and communicate your expectations clearly and without judgment. Tell your teenager what you expect, and why you expect it as his or her parent. If they make a mistake, talk to them about it with the understanding that life has consequences, but you will always love them.
Here’s an example:
“I expect you to be home by midnight. That is the time that I feel is appropriate for your age, and I feel confident about this curfew. As your parent, it is important to me that you respect my curfew. I don’t want to be forced into a situation in which we have to re-evaluate the freedom I offer you. Do you understand?”
If they miss the curfew:
“I’m really disappointed that you missed the curfew. I told you exactly what it was, and I told you why it was important to me. There is no excuse for missing the curfew. The curfew is important to me. It is a sign of trust and respect when you honor my curfew. What are you going to do next time to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
If they miss the curfew again:
“I’m so bummed out about this. We talked about it, and in giving you the freedom to stay out until midnight, I’m respecting your need for freedom and autonomy. However, you did not meet curfew for the second time. As a consequence, you’re not going to be able to go out next Friday. We can talk about how you can better meet curfew in the future, but this consequence is non-negotiable.”
Remember, respecting your teenager with an eating disorder does not mean you don’t have boundaries; it just means that you enforce boundaries with respectful, honest conversation. This will take patience and resilience on your part, but it will also result in a more trustworthy teenager over time.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.