When a child has an eating disorder, parents focus on healing her*. But an unfortunate side effect is that parents then feel they are constantly walking on eggshells. They become afraid of triggering eating disorder behaviors and being blamed for the eating disorder. This results in an unfortunate doom loop in which parents alternate between holding it all in and screaming at their child.
The doom loop of parenting
Your child does something that drives you crazy. You feel angry, but you hold your tongue because she is fragile, and you don’t want to risk Triggering the eating disorder. You may raise your eyebrows or make a big huffing sound, but you don’t actually address the behavior.
The next day, your child does it again … or does something else that drives you crazy. Again, you hold your tongue, but you start having angry conversations with her in your head. She is so irresponsible! She is so selfish! Just because she has an eating disorder doesn’t mean she gets to treat you this way!
And then it happens again. Your anger is building, but you feel you can’t express it. So you blame your child for the fact that you can’t tell her how you feel. You call your friend and tell her your child is “driving you crazy.” You say things like “the truth is that I’m afraid of her. She’s like a ticking time bomb. I live in fear.”
And it’s true. You are living in fear. And you are getting angrier and angrier.
Every time she does something you don’t like, the pressure builds inside of you. Your eyebrow raises, snarky comments, and unpleasantness spread like a disease through your house. Everyone feels it. But you feel justified in your feelings because it’s her fault for having an eating disorder and making this so difficult.
Over time, counter to your specific intention to avoid eating disorder relapse, your child relapses. Perhaps it’s due to the pressure cooker that is your relationship. It’s hard to tell, and it makes you even angrier and more afraid.
1. Silent fuming
The doom loop begins when you hold in your feelings and opinions. When your child doesn’t do something, does something you don’t want her to do, or otherwise rocks your parenting boat, you feel as if you can’t have the difficult conversation necessary to share how you feel.
Instead, you hold your feelings back, only to have them slip out as sarcastic comments, cheap shots, and talking behind your child’s back. Your opinions and emotions are shrouded, but it doesn’t take a genius to read them in your body language and tone of voice. Though your choice of words may not be violent, everything that carries them is.
The more you avoid saying how you feel, the more you stonewall your child, the more your perceive yourself as a victim. She acts out to try and draw you out of your shell. You feel defensive, literally arming yourself against the next attack.
You live in fear, and consider your child the source of your fear. You push with force against your child, accusing her (in your mind) of being selfish and criticizing her. You keep holding it in, even as it feels as if she is taunting you. Then you blow up.
2. Threats and name-calling
You blow up in a rage all of a sudden, imposing drastic consequences that appear to come out of the blue. They aren’t out of the blue to you – you’ve been fuming for days. But your child can honestly say she doesn’t know, because you haven’t been honest about your feelings.
You’ve held them back, afraid to understand what is actually going on. As a result, by the time you finally talk to your child, it comes out like lava – brutal, hot and deadly. There is no room for understanding or discussion.
When you argue with her, you can’t hear anything she says because you’re so busy thinking of what you’re going to say next. You blurt our terrible accusations and perceived defects. You interrupt, berate and bark. You use forceful, biased lectures to get your point across. You scream, you yell.
Nothing changes, and you suffer a terrible emotional hangover from all the yelling. You return to your shell, silently fuming again.
This is the doom loop.
Why this happens
You need to understand that your doom loop is not unique, and it’s not all because of the eating disorder. Most people in leadership positions enter a doom loop unless they learn how to have difficult conversations.
Strong relationships and true influence are built on the ability to have difficult, high-stakes and highly-emotional conversations. When you learn how to have difficult conversations, they will be healing and helpful rather than devastating.
Because here’s the truth: you’re not a monster, you’re a loving parent. You crave influence over your child, for her own good. You want to be able to help her recover, and believe that your knowledge and guidance is the key to her success.
But when you present your ideas to her, she resists. This begins a power play escalation. As a parent with all the best intentions, you don’t expect your child to question you. You become defensive and enter the doom loop in a desperate attempt to regain power and influence.
You mean well, but your strategy sucks. You can’t influence someone to change by browbeating them, no matter how good your intentions.
How to have difficult conversations
Difficult conversations take time, energy and a lot of practice. When you first begin this practice, you may be exhausted by how often you need to have difficult conversations. You may worry that it’s not working, and you may slip back into the doom loop.
But when you commit yourself to having difficult conversations, you will suddenly notice one day that your relationship with your child is vastly improved, and the difficult conversations aren’t so difficult anymore.
You will have reached a wonderful place in which you are open and honest about what you want and need, and your child trusts that you will listen, understand and accept her as someone who is respected. Parents who commit to the practice of having difficult conversations can transform their relationship with their children.
First, when a controversial topic comes up, take some time to think about how you feel. What do you notice inside of yourself? Sure, it may start as anger towards your child, but look deeper.
Are you afraid that you’re making mistakes as a parent? Are you feeling weak and vulnerable? Feelings of anger and rage towards our children usually indicates that we are moving into our “child self.” We revert to feeling like a defenseless child, and begin reacting as a child would.
You must think this through very carefully before you talk to your child, because, whenever possible, your child deserves to talk to you as her parent, not your child self.
Next, speak to your child openly, honestly, and respectfully. Use “I” statements to be clear that you are having an experience and she is not responsible for that experience. Take responsibility for your feelings. “When you don’t take the trash out, I feel really frustrated – it feels to me like it means you don’t care about our family. Is that true?”
Now you must be willing to not just close your mouth, but to close your mouth and open your ears. You asked a question. Now listen to the answer. Ask questions about the answer – not like a lawyer interrogating a criminal – like a parent who loves a child.
Hold this image in your mind: I am a parent who loves my kid. Repeat it as often as necessary to ground yourself in your parent role, not your child self.
Don’t shy away from the heart of the difficult conversation. Be willing and confident about diving as deeply as you need to in order to uncover what’s really going on for your child. Remember, you are a parent, and you are strong enough to hold both of your emotional experiences.
You don’t need to agree with all of your child’s opinions or statements during a difficult conversation, but you do need to be respectful of the fact that they exist. Whatever she says is REAL TO HER. Yes, even if it makes you tremble with frustration, understand that it is real. It matters. She cares.
Take a deep breath and listen even harder. Share your perspective, and tell her how you would like things to be. Look for common ground, and build on areas of agreement to build on shared perception.
This is called dialogue. It goes back and forth. It involves (at least) two different perspectives on what is “right” and “good.” With practice, dialogue does not result in one person converting to the other’s point of view; it results in both people meeting in a shared pool of meaning in which they both feel heard, understood and accepted.
*We have used the pronoun “her” in this article. Of course the same article could be written with the pronoun “him.”
For more information about having difficult conversation, we strongly recommend Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High