Our children are developing eating disorders at ever-younger ages. As we face this problem, we have a choice: we can get mad and feel hopeless and helpless, or we can see the disorder as an opportunity to grow and learn, and to help our child, ourselves, and our entire families and communities get stronger and reverse this troubling situation.
A model of eating disorder development
Biological factors of eating disorders
Eating disorders are believed to stem from a combination of biological and environmental factors. For example, your child might have been born with a genetic predisposition to being highly sensitive. Children who are highly sensitive tend to need specialized soothing techniques to maintain emotional homeostasis.
Additionally, your child may have a tendency towards anxiety and depression. All three of these conditions, which are believed to be inborn and hereditary, frequently co-occur with eating disorders.
Environmental factors of eating disorders
In addition to biological factors, eating disorders are often associated with environmental factors. For example, many people who have eating disorders have experienced some form of bullying or even abuse. Everything from schoolyard taunting to incest and sexual abuse can set the table for eating disorder development.
People who have eating disorders also tend to feel weak emotional connections. For whatever reason, they tend to feel “different” and “separate” from their family members and peer groups. Many people with eating disorders report feeling this “difference” from a very early age.
In addition to these two environmental precursors to eating disorder development, the media environment, which portrays endless slender body images and very little diversity in body shape and size, can deeply impact children and teenagers.
Maladaptive coping behaviors
When confronted with this “soup” of biological and environmental conditions, a child may learn maladaptive coping behaviors that she believes keep her safe. These behaviors may include restricting, bingeing and purging food.
Other maladaptive coping mechanisms include self harm, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and shopping and other addictions. These maladaptive coping behaviors are frequently observed together. While a child is developing her coping mechanism of choice, she may try many or even all of the available behaviors to seek control over her emotional distress.
In developing maladaptive coping mechanisms like an eating disorder, your child is seeking to control her emotional landscape. The behavior is very distressing, but remember that it is actually her way of attempting to soothe herself.
Four things to do for a child with an eating disorder
In an effort to save our children from the distressing behaviors, we sometimes rush to a quick-fix, and wish her to “just stop” what she is doing.
But if we only attempt to “get rid of” the maladaptive behavior without providing her with adaptive coping strategies, she will likely relapse and even take her behavior to new levels.
Taking away someone’s maladaptive coping behavior before providing her with new coping behaviors is like taking away a life ring from someone who is drowning.
Instead, work with your child on a daily basis to learn new, adaptive coping behaviors. All humans experience challenges. But if your child is using maladaptive coping behaviors, then she needs active training on how to handle her challenges given her unique biology and environment.
1. Self Acceptance
A key adaptive coping behavior for a child who has an eating disorder is to learn self acceptance. The disordered brain sends terrible messages about failure, lack of worthiness, and value. Work with her to build her understanding that she shouldn’t believe everything she thinks, and help her insert new messages of worthiness and success on a constant basis.
Additionally, your child needs to learn to assert her needs clearly and non-passively. While you may find her frequent tantrums or sulking periods deeply upsetting, recognize that they are a maladaptive way for her to ask for what she needs. Work with her to clearly ask for what she needs without yelling, stonewalling, whining or defensiveness. It will take time for her to trust that her family can hear what she really needs. Be patient.
3. Emotional Hygiene
Emotional hygiene is a critical adaptive coping behavior. Just like we brush our teeth twice per day, we should check in with our emotional health at least as often. This can involve a simple 5 minute meditation or journaling session twice per day during which you encourage everyone in your family to observe their emotional health and verbalize (if possible) how they are feeling. This is a practice that every member of the family should engage in, not just something your “sick child” needs to do while she is in eating disorder recovery.
4. Community Connections
Finally, all human beings thrive in social settings that drive a sense of community and belonging. Since your child has likely been feeling “weird” for most of her life, find ways to build traditions and rituals into your family life to build a safe place where she can feel as if she is part of a unit. Help her find communities and groups (preferably live, face-to-face groups vs. online and on social media) that can help her build her own community of other like-minded people where she can thrive.
Helping your child heal from an eating disorder is difficult, but it is possible!