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Lessons from seasoned executive coaches to help your child heal from an eating disorder

If your child has an eating disorder, you need professional support – most likely therapists and nutritionists – to help her heal. This work will have a greater impact if it is continued at home, where everyday stressors easily trigger eating disorder behaviors and can continuously delay treatment success.

Parents can become a bit stuck in this situation. Some of us delegate all or most of the healing activities to the professionals because we are either afraid of messing things up or don’t feel qualified. Others of us become overly-involved, trying to monitor every step of recovery and control every situation during the healing process. Regardless of our approach, it is a challenge to parent a child who has an eating disorder.

Executive coaches support business people that are undergoing major transitions. They must behave in a very specific manner in order to support change while having very little direct control over the circumstances. Parenting a teen often feels very similar.

In business, a manager tells other people what to do, how to do it and when to do it. This approach works well for junior-level staff and small children, but it grates against more proficient employees and our growing teens who feel they are capable of making decisions for themselves.

The key difference between an executive coach and a manager is that a coach recognizes and honors others’ individuality, knowledge, and strengths, and recognizes that the coach’s responsibility is to guide, not to control. A coach provides support, insight, and knowledge, but a coach never loses sight of the fact that the person they are coaching is responsible for making his or her own decisions.

Here are some ideas about how to use the skills honed by the best executive coaches to help your child recover from an eating disorder:

  1. Become educated about the situation. Learn about eating disorders, then, learn about your child’s own unique form of disordered eating. No two eating disorders are the same. Also learn about any co-occurring and underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Learn about what is going on by reading, talking to others, and researching everything you can to help you better understand your child’s condition.
  2. Ask questions. A good coach asks a lot of thoughtful questions and provides few answers. When working with your child, the idea is to ask questions that allow your child to find out more about him or herself. Talking through problems, without having your offer advice and guidance (unless expressly requested), will help your child find his or her own solution. When someone finds their own solution, they are more engaged in the outcome. Also ask questions of your child’s treatment team, not just at the beginning, but constantly. Never be afraid to ask about progress and the system the therapist is following towards recovery.
  3. Listen carefully. Coaches must listen carefully and reflect back what they are hearing. During this process, the coach allows the other person to work out what they are really trying to say or do. Be humble enough to recognize that you do not know your child’s thoughts based on the simple fact that you are his or her parent. In fact, there is a very good chance that the fact you are a parent is making it impossible for you to guess at what your child is going through. When you learn to listen actively and supportively, without judgment or opinion, your teenager will surprise you with how much they have to say. This is not easy, but it makes a huge impact.
  4. Be organized. A coach comes to the table with an idea of what they want to accomplish with the person they are coaching. Talk to your child’s treatment team and find out what skill or tool they are currently working within therapy. Ask for ways to reinforce that tool at home, and then work as a family towards that goal. Talk to your child about their own goals during recovery. What are some important milestones that you can help them work towards? Not all of the goals have to be about the eating disorder – life goals are just as, if not more important during recovery.
  5. Leave your ego at the door. A coach must put the outcome – success or failure – in the hands of the person being coached. A coach cannot force someone to achieve great results; the results must come from the person they are coaching. Your child will only fully recover if he or she can find a way to be self-motivated. The only way that coaches help the people they are coaching tap into inherent motivation is to leave their egos at the door. Coaches must disengage their success from that of the person they are coaching. Your child is not a reflection of you. Your child is a human being who needs to find his or her own way in the world.

Great coaches are not born, nor are they made overnight. The best executive coaches spend decades learning how to achieve the five points above. They learn through trial and error, research and deep reflection. We parents don’t have decades to hone this craft, but since we’re talking about our kids, for whom we’re willing to move mountains, I think we can work on an accelerated path. 

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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