Allowing our children to feel sad to help them heal from an eating disorder

As parents, we want to protect our children from uncomfortable feelings, especially sadness or, worse, despair. Most of us came into parenting during the time of a glut of Happiness books, speeches, and articles. Scientists explored exactly how we can increase our happiness with daily tasks, based on the assumption that being happier is always better.

It sounds really nice to avoid sadness and pursue happiness, but the fact is that many of us who pursue a happier life found ourselves actually feeling emptier and sadder. Why?

Because it turns out that sadness is a part of natural emotional hygiene. To expect ourselves – and our children – to live in a state of perpetual happiness is to deny the natural fluctuation of emotions. It turns out that feeling sadness and any negative emotion is not only normal, it’s actually healthier than trying to force ourselves to remain in a constant state of bliss.

When we have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s hard not to think that we need to help our child find a higher state of happiness in life. Certainly, if our child is depressed, we should seek treatment for that condition. But the opposite of depression is not eternal happiness. The opposite of depression is the ability to feel a full range of emotions.

Here are the steps to building acceptance of all mood states – not just the positive ones.

Acknowledge feelings

The first step in learning emotional hygiene – the natural fluctuation of emotional states throughout each and every day – is to acknowledge that our emotions run a wide range. We have to acknowledge that we are not meant to remain in a steady emotional state. In fact, that is a clear sign of depression: the lack of emotional fluctuation. Take some time in your family to acknowledge that feelings come and go every single day. We all have a broad range of positive, negative and neutral feelings, and that is absolutely healthy.

Name feelings

Building emotional literacy, or the ability to put a name on your emotions, helps to build emotional resilience and reduce shame around negative emotional states. Shame around feeling negative feelings is powerful, but it cannot live in the light. When we talk about our feelings, we allow them to grow and expand to as big as they want to be. Talking about negative emotions is a daily practice that we can all work on in our families.

Some of us find it helpful to print out lists of emotions to help us name them. It’s too easy to call every negative feeling afraid, angry or sad, and that’s certainly a good place to start, but there are so many nuances to those feelings. We can add words like despair, fear, horror, and shame to help us better define our feelings and thus allow them out into the light where they can breathe and move on.

Common Feelings: Fear; Anger; Rage; Sadness; Sorrow; Grief; Joy; Happy; Glad; Disgust; Surprise; Unprepared; Trust; Admiration; Excited; Acceptance; Anticipation; Expectation; Calm; Friendly; Nervous; Connected; Courage; Shame; Confidence; Kindness; Benevolent; Cruel; Pity; Indignation; Jealousy; Envy; Love; Attached; Anxiety; Dejection; Despair; Devoted; Reflective; Determined; Hatred; Disdain; Contempt; Disgust; Guilt; Pride; Helpless; Patient; Surprised; Astonished; Horror; Shame; Shy; Modest; Vulnerable; Exposed; Lonely; Empty

Don’t forget that sometimes we need to combine feelings to get an accurate picture. For example, before a big event, a child may say she feels scared. But upon deeper reflection, she is a combination of nervous and excited. You can even put these words together to form new feelings, like “nercited.”

Welcome feelings

Even if we are able to name our feelings and have a broad emotional vocabulary, we still have to work hard to welcome the negative feelings into our lives. Almost all of us were taught to reject, deny and ignore negative emotions. A good reason for this is that negative feelings make parents very uncomfortable. As little children, our parents, in wanting what was best for us, probably tried to get us to stop crying rather than welcome our tears and reassure us that they were perfectly natural and healthy. These lessons learned every day for many years, taught us to hide negative mood states.

In supporting our own child through the eating disorder recovery process, we can learn to welcome the full gamut of our family’s feelings. Every member of our family is going to undergo mood states throughout the day, and as long as our child is in treatment, a good portion of those feelings are going to be in the negative category. The fact is that it really sucks to have a member of the family in treatment for an eating disorder. It is disruptive and frustrating. But rather than try to pretend that everything is just fine, practice instead welcoming these feelings. Talk about the fact that this is a hard trial for everyone. The key is that you do not blame the child who has an eating disorder for these feelings – you just acknowledge that they exist.

For example, if a child says “You’re so selfish; I hate you,” it’s an attempt to communicate a negative feeling, but instead of taking responsibility for the feeling, the child is attaching it to someone else. This enables the child to avoid taking responsibility for their own feelings.

A better approach is to say “I feel really jealous right now because it seems like you are spending more time with Amy than you are with me.” The difference is that when we welcome the feelings, we can take responsibility for them. By beginning the feeling statement with “I,” and keeping the focus on how the person speaking is feeling rather than trying to “get rid” of the feeling by blaming someone else, we learn that feelings are truly acceptable and healthy.

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

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

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