Parents want our kids to be happy. It may be our No. 1 goal for them. Even if we have dreams of raising a neurosurgeon, we have those dreams because we believe that being a neurosurgeon will bring our child tremendous happiness.
When we have a child who has an eating disorder, it is quite clear that our child is decidedly not happy. Something is very wrong, and it’s up to us to work with our child’s care team to help get back on track. Having a child with an eating disorder means that we must be brave and look closely at normal parenting practices and reconsider their usefulness and effectiveness.
Here’s the single most important thing we have to learn as parents who have children who have an eating disorder: stop shutting down feelings.
When our daughter or son has an eating disorder, she or he is (in some ways) using food, starvation, restriction and binging as an alternative to expressing and processing emotions in a healthy manner. This means that we have to work together to help our kids learn that their emotions are actually acceptable and welcome in our home. This, surprisingly, takes a lot of practice.
“Not for me,” we say, “emotions are totally welcome in my home!”
But take another look. Are they really? We often think that we welcome feelings, but it’s usually our language that gives us away. Most of us can admit to occasionally saying things like:
There’s no need to scream!
Why are you so upset?
You’re being dramatic!
You’re being silly!
That’s not what happened!
You shouldn’t feel that way.
It’s not that big a deal.
Quiet! Everyone is looking at you!
We all say these things sometimes. How could we not? Our kids’ emotions can feel totally overwhelming and out of control. It’s scary sometimes!
Why we deny our kids’ emotional expression
When raising our kids on the playground, we thought we were very much with the times when we told our kids “You’re OK” when they fell down. Almost all of us did this, and we heard it echoed all around us. Our little kid fell down and was crying. He was obviously not feeling OK, and came to us for comfort. And we said “You’re OK.” And we began our parenting career in trying to get our kids to move past their upset feelings.
We said things like “You’re OK” because it’s what everyone else was doing. Somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. Managing our kids’ emotions seems like a necessary part of parenting.
Our thinking went something like this: “If I pay a lot of attention to the problem, it will only get bigger. Little kids hurt themselves all the time. Better to just let her learn to shake it off quickly rather than dwell on what hurts.” As they get older, we continue this thinking, adding the thought that “It’s time to grow up and get some control over yourself!”
Hmmmm. When we look at it from an outside perspective, we can see that perhaps this isn’t the best approach to parenting. In fact, research has shown that our kids actually thrive when we allow them to fully express their emotions.
Instead of throwing a tantrum or sulking for a week, a child who feels safe expressing emotions will loudly, possibly with tears, say how they feel, and then move on. When they feel accepted, most children do not need to tantrum or sulk, because they feel their emotions are heard and respected.
But don’t our kids need us to teach them to control themselves?
We should address the concern that immediately arises for all of us: but doesn’t this mean giving into my child? Doesn’t this mean coddling her? Don’t our children need us to teach them how to control themselves?
First of all, feelings are a natural part of life, no matter how old you are. Secondly, it is developmentally appropriate for our young children, adolescents and young adults to have large emotional ranges. This has to do with their brain development. If we allow their brains to develop naturally, they will learn self-control all by themselves.
Accepting feelings is totally different from giving into our child’s every whim. The important thing about fluid emotional processing is that our kids learn to notice that they have a lot of feelings and thoughts, and we don’t need to act on or do anything about most of them. Feelings are like clouds in the sky. Most of them will just fly in and out of our view without making a big impact on our lives if we just let them go.
A child who is not allowed to express emotions may tantrum when a parent says “No,” to something. That’s because they don’t feel they have a voice. A child with whom we practice emotional expression may be upset, and they may still loudly disagree with our decision, but they will also trust that they were heard and understood.
Think about this literally: when a child is screaming, she is actually begging us to listen. She is showing us with the volume of her voice that she feels unheard. Take some time to listen, and we will notice that, with practice, her need to scream will reduce over time. Not overnight: over time.
What to say instead of “stop crying”
There are two basic emotional states: aroused and calm. Most of the time when our kids are calm, we’re OK with that. The problems usually come in when our child is aroused – either positively or negatively.
When our kids enter a negative arousal state, which includes feelings of anger, impotence, loneliness, shame and frustration, their brain goes into what is commonly referred to as “fight or flight” mode. In other words, they tend to get loud, flail their hands around to appear bigger, and maybe stomp away and slam their doors. Sound familiar?
Once a human of any age is in fight or flight mode, they feel a primal instinct to protect themselves. This is why when we say something to the effect of “calm down,” we are completely ineffective. In fact, in the history of the world, nobody has ever calmed down because someone told them to calm down.
This is why, parents can better help by helping the arousal pass through our child and allowing a return to calm to happen naturally and on the child’s own schedule. We do this with accepting and connecting phrases such as:
You are really upset.
I can hear how angry you are.
This is making you very sad.
I know how frustrating this is for you.
That must have hurt.
This feels pretty big right now.
I am so sorry you’re going through this.
I wish I could make things better for you.
These statements are very different from emotion-negating statements like “calm down.” The main difference is that instead of communicating STOP!, we are communicating: I accept you. I see you. I hear you. I am here. There is absolutely nothing that our children want more from us than to be accepted, understood, and to feel that we care for them no matter what happens in their lives.
The time has come for us to learn new parenting skills, and to improve our communication with our children, and we are totally up for the task! We can change our behavior and help them become fluent emotional processors, and we can be the supportive people that they need in their lives.
Don’t worry about perfection – just practice using words to encourage your child to express emotion rather than swooping in and trying to stop bad emotions from happening. None of us can do this all the time, but if we can all do it some of the time, the world will be a better place.