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What dads need to know about parenting a child who has an eating disorder, by Jeanette Alonso, LMHC

What should dads know about parenting?

I believe the most important thing dads need to know is that they have a huge role in parenting.  Gone are the days when parenting was primarily left for the mothers to do. I’ve observed a shift where fathers are more hands-on and work collaboratively with their spouses when it comes to parenting. However, at times there are still households where the father is the primary breadwinner and at times this entails traveling often or working late hours. In any case, fathers are just as important as mothers when it comes to rearing their children.

What mistakes do you see dads making when parenting around body size and body image?

A mistake I see is that fathers tend to step away, particularly during female puberty, and seem to leave this stage of parenting to the mothers. The fathers I’ve worked with have described feeling uncomfortable and unqualified to deal with the challenges of puberty and menstruation with their daughters. Their thought process is typically to step back while the mother takes on a more prominent role during this stage of development.

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While their thought process may make sense to some, I have found that quite often my female clients have experienced feelings of rejection and alienation from their fathers.  It is during this stage in time that girls are experiencing a change in their bodies and many of my clients have correlated the changes in their body with a separation from their fathers.

Some of my clients have gone as far rejecting their physical changes (growth of breast tissue, height, and weight changes) because they have internalized that those changes marked the point in time when dynamics in the family changed.

Of course, this is not the case for every single family but if I would have anything to add regarding the role of fathers during puberty, it would be to remain close and work as a team with mothers, and normalize this period in daughters’ development to eliminate any shame, guilt, or rejection of their bodies.

What are your recommendations for dads regarding body size and body image?

Fathers need to be conscious of the types of comments they make about their partner’s bodies, their children’s bodies, and bodies of others. Children seek reassurance and approval from their parents. If the focus remains off the body and more on values and innate qualities & characteristics, there will be more emphasis on true sources of self-worth as opposed to it coming from body size, etc.

How do you teach dads to give validation to a child who has an eating disorder?

I have often found that some of the fathers I have worked with have struggled with identifying emotions or even being able to manage uncomfortable emotions. When their child has an eating disorder, this lack of connection with their own emotions as well as their child’s emotions, causes a barrier in communication, connection, an inability to support their child during their struggles and even on their journey to recovery.

It’s important to first get an idea of the family’s emotional language and what is expressed or not at home. The goal is not to completely change a parent, in this case, fathers who are not in touch with emotions, but to provide them with a space to identify and acknowledge that they too feel emotions, particularly in response to their child struggling with an eating disorder.

In addition to their own identification of feelings, it’s important to create a safe space for their child to be able to effectively express their emotions and feel heard and validated. Quite often, an eating disorder becomes the child’s voice and verbal communication of emotions may cease.

During the initial stages of recovery, clients work on identification of emotions in their individual sessions and prepare for the opportunity to express those in family therapy. Parents are coached and educated on the importance of emotions and tolerating their own as well as their child’s emotions. Parents are also taught the useful skill of validation.

Validation is a key component in healthy relationships and is a core skill acquired in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is the process of letting someone know you are present, care enough to listen and want to understand. It is not about fixing, problem-solving, or denying that there is a problem.

Teaching fathers to validate their child begins with helping them identify and validate their own experiences. This, in turn, can allow for them to listen and validate their child’s experience. If the father has been emotionally removed and unable or unwilling to understand, teaching basic validation skills can begin to pave the way toward connection and understanding.

The important thing is to show that you care about your child’s feeling and making them feel heard. It’s important to resist the urge to criticize or advise. Even if you don’t fully comprehend what your child is going through, it’s important that your child feels loved and validated.

Examples of validating statements:

“I hear and can see that you’re really sad right now” (reflect back the emotion you’re observing and connecting to)

“I know it’s difficult and I am so proud of you” 

What do you think your clients who have eating disorders would most like their dads to know?

I think my clients would ask their fathers to make it a point to spend quality time with the family, come up with something special and unique to their relationship, and from time to time have alone time to connect and get to know one another. Connection is key!

Jeanette Alonso LMHC

Jeanette Alonso, LMHC treats a variety of adolescent and adult aged clients in her private practice in Coral Gables, FL. Jeanette has a passion for working with both trauma and eating disorders, among other varying issues such as depression, anxiety, perinatal mental health, and phase of life issues. Jeanette is a member and serves on the board of The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) Miami Chapter.

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