Many parents who have children who have eating disorders are surprised to discover that their child’s disorder is about emotions, not food. While a person who has an eating disorder has symptoms related to food, the underlying issue that needs to be addressed is their emotional wellbeing.
This is why it’s common during eating disorder recovery for parents to encounter bewildering “emotional storms,” which typically involve your child violently crying, yelling, and arguing with you. These storms may seem bizarre and unpredictable. But look deeper into your child’s recovery, and you’ll learn that these storms are your child’s way of asking you for emotional care giving.
If emotional storms seem exhausting and overwhelming to you, here are a few biological factors to consider:
1. Emotional care is a fundamental human need
All humans are hard-wired to seek emotional intimacy. When we are emotionally intimate with our parents and families, we are safer from environmental threats, because people who are emotionally close tend to defend each other. It’s important to know that your child’s need for emotional care from her parents is completely natural and normal. The fact that she is asking you for more emotional care rather than trying to meet her needs without you is an indication both that she loves you and that she is healing from her disorder.
2. Some humans need more emotional care than others
Some people have a greater need for emotional intimacy than others. If your child has an eating disorder, then there is a good chance that she falls in the category of “Highly Sensitive People,” a trait that can been observed in the very first year of life, suggesting it is inborn. These children have a highly sensitive nervous system that can pick up on emotions in a way that seems supernatural to neuro-typical people. It is not uncommon for parents who themselves have normal or low emotional sensitivity to have a child who baffles them with her high sensitivity. This mismatch is not anyone’s fault but must be addressed during eating disorder treatment.
3. It’s not your fault
Very few parents intentionally neglect their children’s emotional needs. Most of the time the trouble lies in a misunderstanding of a child’s needs because she functions differently than you do. When your child has an emotional storm, it’s hard not to feel personally attacked and defensive, especially if she is criticizing your parenting. You may be tempted to withdraw because it feels so hateful when you did (and are doing) your very best.
But please understand that this is not about whether you did your best. This is simply about the fact that you did your very best, and now there is more to be done. Our children never lose their need to be seen and understood by their parents, and people who have eating disorders are likely to continue getting stuck in self-destructive behaviors as long as they feel emotionally under-nourished.
Emotional storms pass when your meet your child’s emotional needs. The good news is that any parent can learn how to provide emotional care even if it doesn’t feel natural. Here are six things to do when an emotional storm comes along:
1. Don’t freak out
The first thing you need to do for a child who starts an emotional storm is to stop your instinctual first response. You may actually be “emotion-phobic,” and feel physically repelled by a child who starts crying, yelling or arguing with you. Your first instinct may be to scream, roll your eyes, or just leave the room.
But your child has very real needs for emotional connection. Her emotional needs are just as life-critical as her need for air, food and water. Recognize that you are freaking out, remind yourself that this isn’t your fault but you still need to do the work, and focus on giving her what she needs right now.
2. Forget about time
It’s not unusual for parents to feel exhausted by their child’s emotional needs. One thought that might come up for you is how ridiculous her emotional needs are, and the thought that you don’t have time to do this for her all the time. OK. That’s a valid fear for you.
Now take a breath and remember that your child is in the process of healing from a terrible, self-destructive disorder. She needs you to work through your aversions and show up for her during emotional storms. Rest assured that your time investment and attention to her emotional care is absolutely worthwhile.
Also remember that emotional storms don’t last forever. Most emotional storms, when addressed compassionately, can be resolved in less than an hour. As your child heals and you get better at weathering these storms together, they may pass in just a few minutes. Like anything new, it’s going to take practice. Take a deep breath and just be here now. Go minute by minute if you need to, but stay with her.
3. Make it about her, not you
It’s not unusual to feel very angry, overwhelmed, or irritated when a child is having an emotional storm. But you have to set that aside. You child needs you, and this is part of your job as her parent. Make this moment about her needs.
An emotional storm is not the time for you to talk about how your child’s behavior makes you feel. Don’t ask her what you should do, what you were supposed to do, or any other questions that indicate you feel victimized by her emotions. During an emotional storm, your child needs you to be solely focused on her needs. This is not because your needs don’t matter (they absolutely do), but it’s all about timing, and this is not the time.
If you find yourself panicked and either lashing out or biting your tongue through every emotional storm, then please see a therapist to help you with your very natural and real feelings of frustration. Your feelings are valid, and a qualified therapist can help you get your needs for self-expression met while still giving your child the emotional care she needs during eating disorder recovery.
4. Reflect, don’t defend
When your child says something during an emotional storm, don’t debate, deny or judge what she has said. Those responses are all defensive, which means you are defending against your child’s need for emotional connection. To her, it feels as if you have erected a wall between the two of you. Her continued yelling, arguing, or crying is her attempt to break the wall down.
Instead of getting defensive, reflect on what she says. This is how we reassure people that we hear and understand them, and it is what our children crave most from us. You will know this is working when her volume goes down.
This takes a lot of practice. Most of the time when we get defensive we genuinely don’t see ourselves as being defensive. You may not realize this, but denying that you are being defensive is actually being defensive. Listen to your child. If she rages even louder at you after you say something, then there is a good chance you said something to defend yourself against her emotional experience.
Remember that emotional storms pass when your meet your child’s emotional needs. So take a deep breath, and listen to what your child says. Reflect back to her what you heard so that she knows you are listening.
5. Slow down
Sometimes parents attempt to solve their kids’ problems as quickly as possible, but if we try to move too quickly to resolve the problem, we will not meet our child’s emotional needs. Remember that whatever she is raging about is a cover for her actual need to feel emotionally connected with you.
If she’s arguing with you about the stupidity of the school’s dress code, don’t tell her that’s just how it is/get over it. Encourage her to talk about what the restrictions on her clothing means to her.
If she’s crying because she failed a test, don’t tell her she’ll do better next time. Instead, help her use the test as a way to connect with you and feel heard and seen by you.
Don’t say “it will all be fine.” Say “I can see it feels really bad for you right now,” and let her keep talking about it. This is how we build emotional connection. The result is that our children feel truly seen and understood by us, which is every child’s deepest wish.
This is hard. Remember that your child’s need for emotional connection is normal and natural, and within your power to give. It may not be easy, but you can learn to give her what she needs to thrive. Be patient with yourself, and get the support you need to learn these skills.
NOTE: This article applies to all genders. The female gender pronoun is used because of limitations in the English language, not because our sons and non-binary children don’t crave emotional connection as often as our daughters.