Control or compassion: which is the best parenting approach for a child who has an eating disorder?

Most of us were raised in command and control households. Our parents told us what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They demanded obedience and punished us when we did not live up to their standards.

When we were children, we did what they said, but we hated the way it made us feel. We felt helpless and impotent. Many times we would scream into our piles of stuffed animals in frustration and anger about our parents’ demands.

Do you remember?

The command and control model is the default way to parent. Even though we hated it as kids, we now feel compelled to parent our own children in the same way. We fear that if we don’t try to control our kids, we will “coddle” them or indulge them. We worry that if we don’t drive them to succeed, they won’t do anything.

We say things like:

“Johnny won’t do anything unless he’s told to – and even then, it takes five times!”

“Cassandra is totally disorganized, so we have to pay for a tutor or she will never get into college.”

“Stella is a couch potato. She doesn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. I have to force her to do sports to make sure she gets some activity.”

“Brian will eat everything in the house unless I lock it up.”

All of these statements make sense. We are probably right in some way – after all, who knows our kids better than we do? We see their weaknesses in all their glory and believe we must take steps to fix them.

But we need to stop and think carefully about our natural impulses to control our children. Sure, we can see the problem, and sure, we believe we know the answer. But we may be terribly wrong. We may accidentally hurt rather than help our children under the control model.

Control leads to rebellion

Alcohol, sex, drugs, cigarettes, lying, cheating, poor grades, skipped classes, shoplifting, sexual promiscuity, vandalism and eating disorders can all thrive in a rebellion against the strict parental command. This does not mean that we as parents are responsible for our kids’ rebellion, but providing them with too little freedom and opportunities to find self-worth and identity outside of our control gives them excellent fodder for destructive rebellion.

Accepting our kids is not dangerous

In fact, humans are inherently curious and interested in pursuing life goals. This natural drive works beautifully when we allow our children to identify their own life goals. When we accept our children for who they are and trust them to pursue life wholeheartedly, they will more easily and quickly find their own source of creativity and success rather than flailing around trying to meet our well-intentioned but misguided expectations.

Of course, we can have standards. Of course, we can have expectations. But we must accept our kids for who they are, and we must not try to make them into model copies of ourselves or some other fantasy ideal.

Giving our kids compassion makes them more likely to succeed

The compassion model allows our children to live life on their own terms, even while living within acceptable conduct in our home. A cornerstone of compassion is acknowledging the things in life that suck. We don’t have to pretend that it’s all butterflies and rainbows. Most of childhood actually does suck. Compassionate parents are not afraid to sit with their kids and acknowledge the suckiness while providing the safety and support of a safe home base.

For example, imagine our kid says that school sucks. We may be tempted to say “No it doesn’t,” or, if we are being clever, “come on – it doesn’t suck all the time!” But neither of these statements is compassionate. Neither of these statements allows our children to actually feel the feelings coursing through their bodies. Neither of these statements feels true to our child in the moment. To them, we are denying their authentic experience and, worse, we are lying.

Does it feel shocking to suggest saying instead:

“School can be a real drag! I remember that, and I totally get it. I know that you would rather be doing just about anything else than go to school most days.” 

What would happen? Would the roof cave in? Would the child take this as permission to never go to school? Would the Good Parent Police track us down and give us a citation for poor parenting? No. What will probably happen is our kid will slump his shoulders and say “Yeah. School really does suck.” And our kid will feel understood, and as if he belongs.

And, sometimes, our kid will look hopefully at us and say “does this mean I don’t have to go to school?” Relax, this does not mean that you have failed. It’s an honest question, and you can answer it honestly. Drop the parent-speak and be authentic with a “wish” statement like this:

“Aw, Sweetie. I wish you could always do what you want to, but school is a requirement, even if it is a genuine suck-fest.” 

Compassion means listening and responding to someone’s pain without making suggestions. It means holding back all the subconscious messages we think the Good Parent Police recommend, like “SCHOOL IS GOOD” and “YOU SHOULD LIKE SCHOOL.” That’s bullshit.

Don’t many of us wake up on weekdays wishing we could take the day off? Even if we absolutely love work, it’s normal to feel the impulse to take the day off. The fact that we think about that does not mean we are going to quit. It just means we are human and have thoughts.

When we complain about a bad day at work, do we want anyone to tell us to suck it up and enjoy it? Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do we want someone to tell us to quit? No. We want someone to listen to us and understand. When we reach out to a friend with a negative statement, we are seeking connection and understanding. We don’t need anyone else to solve our problems; we just need them to understand and care enough about us to listen.

Why do we think that our kids deserve less? Instead of compassion, too often we give them canned happy bullshit when they complain about things that we know genuinely suck. We’ve been there, watching the clock, waiting for the bell to ring. It sucks. Not all the time, but definitely sometimes. Just like work. We need to show our older kids the same level of compassion and understanding that we ourselves seek.

Our kids can handle it. Our kids will thrive under our compassion in ways that they will never thrive under control. They will develop a strong sense of self, high self-esteem, and a powerful belief in their own self-worth. And yes, they may still rebel. They may still develop eating disorders and do stupid things like sneak out to go to a party and get drunk and call us to come and pick them up. But if they can rest assured of our compassion and love, they are more likely to thrive anyway.

Ginny Jones is the editor of 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.

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