Our children who have eating disorders are behaving in a way that is contrary to everything we want them to do. With their eating disorder behavior, they are abusing their bodies with starvation, binging and purging.
Let’s be honest. As parents, eating disorders are really inconvenient, frustrating, and expensive. It’s totally OK to acknowledge that parenting in this situation can make us feel really angry, scared and impotent.
Yes, we are parents, and yes, we love our children, but we are also human beings. We have our own lives, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. And we desperately want our children to be free of their eating disorders.
So we plead. We beg. We threaten. We take them to specialists to “fix” them. We may hospitalize them or enroll them in inpatient or outpatient treatment programs. We take them to countless therapy sessions. We are likely spending a lot of money on treatment to make them better.
Are you, like many parents, frustrated to find that this approach is not working? Are you surprised that the eating disorder is still living on in your child, despite your best efforts?
Many eating disorder experts say this is because the majority of healing takes place in life, outside of treatment. So while professionals can give our children excellent healing tools, the true healing takes place outside of their direct care.
This gives us hope as parents that there are in fact ways that we can help our children heal from their eating disorders. Yes, our children need professional treatment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make changes at home that will support their healing.
In the book Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, the Arbinger Institute discusses how interpersonal problems at work, in our communities and at home can be solved by recognizing the ways in which we think and feel about people. They say that we all tend to go into “the box,” in which, when emotions run rampant and the stakes are high, we inadvertently label our colleagues, friends and family members as “bad” so that we can remain “good.”
When our children have eating disorders, the stakes feel huge. Emotions run wild. We can’t help but feel scared and betrayed. We can’t help but secretly think things like:
“I’ve worked so hard, and sacrificed so much to be a parent. I’ve done everything for her! I am a good parent!”
“She is just selfish, stubborn and looking for attention!”
“All she does is lie to me. I can’t trust her anymore!”
“She shouldn’t treat me like this! It’s not right!”
“I’m sick of this! Why won’t she just grow up and realize that she’s not the center of the universe?”
These thoughts are understandable. Even though our children are the ones who have eating disorders, their eating disorders impact everyone around them. We are not bad people for having these thoughts, but they will not make anything better. The trouble is, our children (and almost all humans) can subconsciously sense when our thoughts head in this direction.
This happens at work every day. Executives attend workshops to learn communication techniques to get their employees to do things, but no communication technique can overcome an executive’s attitude towards an employee. No matter what words come out of the executive’s mouth, the foundational thoughts of incompetence are what the employee hears. This is why so many workplace environments are toxic and inefficient.
Similarly, we can attend parent training and learn what to say to our children, but if we don’t learn how to address how we feel about them, our children resist all our attempts to guide them.
We think we are able to hide our true feelings from others, but, according to Arbinger, “we can always tell when we’re being coped with, manipulated, or outsmarted. We can always detect the hypocrisy. We can always feel the blame canceled beneath veneers of niceness. And we typically resent it.”
The more we try to control someone when we have negative thoughts about them, the less likely they are to change.
Until we change the way we think and feel about our teenagers, we will have no success in changing their behavior. Your thoughts and feelings about your child are much more important than what you say to them.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.
Learn about how you can shift your thoughts and feelings about your child by reading Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box