If your child has an eating disorder like binge eating disorder, bulimia or anorexia, you probably have a lot of questions and a lot of fear about what the eating disorder means, where it came from, and how long it will be until your child is recovered.
Almost all parents have done the absolute best job they possibly can in raising their child to be whole, confident and strong. The eating disorder diagnosis can feel like a slap in the face after all the effort we have put into parenting.
And yet, here it is. And it means there is work to be done.
Many of us who have eating disorders use our eating disorder behaviors as a way to go around, avoid, or completely ignore our feelings. Instead of processing our emotions in a healthy manner, we develop eating disorder behaviors in order to take our feelings underground. This has resulted in a build-up of negative emotions for which we have no skills (other than maladaptive ones like restricting, binging and purging) to process.
During eating disorder recovery, many of us must learn new skills to process our pain and suffering in healthy, adaptive ways. These skills are easy to comprehend on an intellectual level, but they are very difficult to practice, and even more difficult to integrate into our everyday behavior.
We need to practice to get better
During our recovery, we have to practice processing feelings in real-time. Because we have incomplete coping tools for doing this, it feels raw and terrifying when feelings come up. The side effect is often that parents, siblings and other loved ones experience a person who was fairly pleasant and easy-going transform into one who seems angry a lot of the time.
This is a critical moment in recovery. When we stop hiding our feelings and allow socially unattractive emotions such as anger to arise, it means we are healing. But yes, it is very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of this anger.
We’re sorry, but we actually need to be unapologetic about having feelings, including anger. We know this is hard for you, but we also need you to be able to tolerate our anger as we heal. We need a safe space in which to exercise our new tools for feeling feelings in real-time, which includes feeling anger and other “unacceptable” feelings.
It will get harder before it gets easier
This can be doubly hard given that most of us who have eating disorders seemed pretty easy before the diagnosis. People who have eating disorders often anticipate others’ emotions and are sensitive to socially-acceptable behavior. Many of us mold our emotional expression to fit others’ needs. You may not have even noticed how much was remaining unsaid about how we felt and what we sensed on an hourly basis (a lot).
You may have never asked us to do this, but many of us started to behave in ways that we believed protected you from our full emotions. We may have intuited that you couldn’t handle our anger, and thus found ways to work around it and hide it from you. There’s no need to blame yourself, but it’s important to know that your child has been experiencing you in this way.
When we begin to recover, we have to stop protecting our parents from our feelings. We have to start allowing our anger, frustration, jealousy, hurt, pettiness, cowardice, and all other negative emotions to surface without a buffer. It’s intense for you. It’s intense for us. But if we shut this down, we risk our recovery.
Here are four ways parents can deal with a child who is expressing a lot of anger while in the eating disorder recovery process:
1. Don’t take it personally
No matter what your child says, you need to try and remember that you should not take their words personally. They may say awful, nasty things. And some of them may be true. But if you take their words personally, you will shut them down immediately.
Your child is learning to process in new ways, without their eating disorder behavior. They need you to be stronger than their words right now so that they can learn on their own how to do this without turning to restricting, binging and purging. This is really not about you. It’s about them learning to do new things.
2. Don’t get defensive
Your child will probably call into question things you have done, things you said you would do, and things you didn’t do. They will do this a lot. It will hurt. But remember that this is not about roasting you on a spit. This is actually us testing out ways to communicate without their disorders. It’s messy. It’s brutal. It’s necessary.
Please don’t get defensive and tell them that something didn’t happen or that something had to happen the way it did. The “thing” is not the point. They are testing out the idea that someone who loves them can tolerate their pain. They want to feel held and accepted with their pain. All you need to do is take a deep breath and ignore your deep desire to defend yourself.
3. Acknowledge and accept anger
Your child has anger. The only way they knew to process anger before was to make their body suffer. Now they are trying to learn to process anger in healthy ways. When they are processing anger with you, the best thing you can do is acknowledge and accept the anger without judgment.
Listen. Acknowledge what is said (acknowledgment is not the same as agreement). Tell them you are sorry that they are angry. Tell them that you wish they never had to suffer this pain. Tell them you are doing everything you can to help right now. Tell them you are here for them no matter what they say or do. Let them cry. Let them mourn. Let them rage. It’s just a process they have to go through right now.
4. Let it be
It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to downright suck. You’re going to make mistakes and mess up in this process. Your child might say terrible things to you. But all you need to do is remember that each time your child brings up anger, it is part of the healing process. Your only job is to let it be. Allow their anger to exist in the world.
Many parents believe our job is to make pain and anger go away for our kids. We think we are supposed to fix things for them and make them better. But our children need us to just let their pain and anger exist in nature. Just like thorns on a rosebush, anger does not make them ugly. It is natural and part of all of us. Our children need to know they can be loved with their anger. They need to know this in order to recover. Just let it be.
A parents’ job during recovery is undeniably difficult. As a child learns new skills, their parents need to learn how to handle them. This is hard. Please get the support you need to be the parent your child needs during this time. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.