Journaling to recovery – helping your child heal from an eating disorder by developing a journaling practice

Eating disorders are often described as a coping mechanism for handling difficult emotions. While your child heals from his or her eating disorder, professionals will support the development of healthy emotional coping skills. One key skill is the ability to reflect on a situation and recognize that thoughts can be processed without harming the thinker. This separation between thoughts and self is critical to the healing process.

Talk therapy has consistently been used to support eating disorder recovery for this very reason. The goal of most talk therapy is to help the person who has an eating disorder reflect on emotions and thoughts and process them in new, healthy ways that are not reliant on food or starvation.

Talking about emotions creates a mind-mouth connection. This is a great way to get the emotions out of our bodies and into the air, where they often lose power. Another great way to learn emotional processing and coping skills is the mind-eye-hand connection, r journaling.

Journaling has consistently been shown to improve mood, support emotional development, and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and many other psychological disruptions. As your child goes through treatment for his or her eating disorder, one thing you can do at home is support the development of a journaling habit.

Here are some tips for structuring the journaling practice:

1. Talk to your child’s treatment providers to ensure you are all on the same page regarding journaling goals and expectations.

It is very important for you to check in and see whether the structure outlined below will make sense given your child’s current state of mind and treatment progress. There are therapists who specialize in and/or are trained in a therapy method called Journal Therapy, which provides a structure and outline for using journaling to support healing. Even without such a certification, your child’s therapist may make requests that differ from the method described below. Your child’s therapists’ recommendations should be taken over the generalized advice that we provide below.

2. Talk to your child about the benefits of journaling and why you are asking them to do it.

Talk to your child about why you would like to introduce journaling to their recovery, and discuss the pros and cons. Journaling has been clinically shown to improve symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders, and many other conditions.

You should present your request and then listen to your child’s feedback. He or she may think it’s the worst idea ever. That’s OK. Remember, it’s a discussion, not a debate. You can respectfully listen to your child’s feedback without changing the request that they add journaling to their healing process.

3. Discuss the approach to journaling your child will most enjoy.

Hopefully your child isn’t completely resistant to the idea, and this is where the fun part can begin. There are two primary methods of journaling: electronic and paper. Of course the electronic methods involve a laptop or device. Set the ground rule expectation that during the journaling practice your child will switch off wireless and cellular connections so there is no distraction.

We recommend a paper approach if at all possible both because it avoids all chance of electronic distraction and better enforces the mind-eye-hand connection. If your child agrees to work on paper, then discuss the type of paper and writing materials she or he prefers. Most people enjoy choosing from a wide variety of paper types and writing utensils.

Remember that this is about the mind-eye-hand connection, and the feedback of writing with a Sharpie is really different from that of writing with a pencil. This means that having some choices in writing utensils for different emotional states can be really helpful.

4. Discuss what will happen afterwards.

Journaling is highly personal, and what people choose to do with their writing when it’s complete is even more personal. Some people like to fill volumes of journals, holding onto them and rereading them over and over again.

Other people enjoy the writing process, but then want to get rid of the “evidence.” Their feelings may feel too raw and exposed when they are on paper. This is fine, too. Some people like to just journal on their laptops, never save the file, and move on. Other people like to take what they have written and ceremonially destroy it using a shredder.

It doesn’t matter what your child does after the journaling session – what matters is that they took the time to process their emotions in this manner.

5. Ask your child to set aside at least 10 minutes per day for journaling.

A practice is something we do every day, even when we don’t feel like it. Remember that the goal here is to build coping skills and emotional processing methods, so what your child writes is not important – you are just asking for him or her to take 10 minutes per day to put some thoughts and feelings into writing.

Science has shown that 20 minutes is actually ideal, but if you can help your child achieve just 10 minutes you will make a big impact. If you are in a stage of building connection and belonging with your child, you may consider sitting with him or her and journaling together. Your physical presence and the fact that you are taking part in the practice may help build common activities.

On the other hand, your child may not feel comfortable writing with you in the room. You definitely want to play it by ear based on your child’s individual recovery plan.

6. Honor privacy.

It is critical that, no matter how worried you are about your child, you do not violate their privacy by reading their journal. Unless your child proactively asks you to read what they have written (which you should still carefully evaluate before doing), never open their journal or attempt to find out what they wrote.

Violating the privacy of your child’s journal can seriously damage your child’s trust in you, and could impede their recovery from an eating disorder.

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