The unintended consequences of a “too-nice” family culture

Your family may appear to be very happy. Everyone sees you as a cohesive and loving family unit. Your children are polite, perform well in school or sports (or both), and at least one parent shows up to school events. You maintain a nice home, good jobs, and enjoy spending time with a social, religious, or community groups. From all outward appearances, your family is just about as perfect as it gets, and you feel safe in the knowledge that you have done your job as a parent very well.

But then one of your kids gets an eating disorder, and you are baffled. How is it possible that your happy, loving family could have a child suffering from such destructive (and, you can’t help but think, distasteful) behavior pattern?

All of your feelings are valid and worthy of exploration. Having a child who has an eating disorder is a deeply confusing thing for a parent to deal with, especially when you thought that your family was functioning just fine and everyone was healthy.

When your child enters treatment for the eating disorder, things get even more confusing. During family therapy, your child may tell you things about your parenting that you never expected and don’t understand. You thought you had a happy, loving family, but your child who has an eating disorder may say that the family is superficial and lacks emotional depth. You simply can’t understand what you are supposed to do with this information.

First, take a deep breath. You are not alone. In fact, many of the families who encounter eating disorders run into this challenge. Their “nice” family narrative is turned inside out, and you can’t for the life of you figure out what went wrong.

The “too nice” family

One key may be in the unintended consequences that occur when a family is “too nice.” What happens in “too nice” families is that family members become highly attuned to how everyone else feels, especially the parents. The family narrative that everything is just fine becomes something to which the children feel they must live up to, or risk being ostracized. In this environment, children automatically and unconsciously keep their true opinions and feelings to themselves for fear of rocking the boat.

Children in “too nice” families learn on a deeply unconscious level which behaviors will earn them love and safety within their families, and which will result in becoming an outsider. This is dangerous because the child’s psyche literally interprets exclusion from the family group as a catastrophic life event to be avoided at all costs, so the child unconsciously sacrifices their own true self in exchange for belonging.

Unfortunately, the costs are very high when a child unconsciously represses their personal feelings and opinions in deference to the group-oriented behavior in a “too nice” family. When children learn to keep their feelings undercover, they internalize the concept that there is something wrong with them. They think: if everyone else in the family seems just fine, but I feel differently, then there must be something wrong with me.

It’s the opposite of “on purpose”

It’s important to pause here and specify that “too nice” families do not always intentionally or explicitly force their children to repress their individual feelings. It is often an unconscious side effect of parenting according to physical, stated, and obvious needs rather than learning the importance of emotional caregiving.

Most parents in “too nice” families are exceptional when it comes to physical caregiving.  The house is clean, the lawn is mowed, the parents show up at events, and the family takes nice vacations together. Scrapbooks and social media posts document wonderful images of family life and togetherness.

But these parents may not have ever been taught that without emotional caregiving, our children will suffer on a deeply personal level, despite the appearance of everything being wonderful. And this fertile ground for eating disorders.

It may not feel like it right now, but the development of an eating disorder can actually be a wonderful gift for parents of “too nice” families. When loving and well-meaning parents see eating disorders as an opportunity to build new parenting skills and deepen their emotional intimacy with their children, everyone benefits.

Emotional caregiving

Emotional caregiving is the essential ingredient to building truly connected families in which each member feels like both an individual and a beloved member of the group. It is provided when parents acknowledge that a child’s emotional health is equally important to their physical health. Parents who are emotional caregivers have the following behaviors:

  • They seek knowledge and guidance to improve their understanding of emotional states, expression, and management.
  • They learn techniques to manage emotions more effectively without hurting themselves or others.
  • They are deeply attuned to their children’s emotional state and can help them talk about emotions and feelings without shame or embarrassment.
  • They often check in on their children’s emotional state.
  • They remain conscious of their own emotional state and take steps to provide an emotionally safe environment within the family.

If you think emotional health is a bunch of new-age crap, then please understand that emotional health is absolutely and without a doubt directly linked to physical health. Specifically, emotional health is directly linked to death.

Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, said in a 2017 article that loneliness (one of the key emotions) is a public health crisis. Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia. “The reduction in lifespan (for loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” he said. (Harvard Business Review, Sept 2017)

The deeply connected family

The difference between a “too nice” family and a deeply connected family may not be apparent on the outside. In fact, due to the freedom of individual expression, some emotionally connected families appear less connected to outsiders who value cohesion and polite interaction.

The deeply connected family is completely comfortable with individual expression and authentic communication because they are secure in the knowledge that emotions bring us closer when expressed and processed in a healthy way. In a deeply connected family, each and every individual feels understood and accepted for exactly who they are. 

A family’s transformation from “too nice” to deeply connected may begin with an eating disorder diagnosis, but it does not end when the eating disorder symptoms go away. While a child recovers from an eating disorder, it is important for parents to build their emotional caregiving skills.

Here are some steps that you can take to begin the process of becoming a deeply connected family:

1. Get therapy. If you recognize yourself as having a “too nice” family, or if your child is reporting that they repress their feelings to protect you or because they are afraid of what will happen if they are “real” or tell the truth, then please seek therapy for yourself. Rest assured that this is not because this is your fault or because you are a failure as a parent. It’s very common for wonderful and loving parents to lack emotional caregiving skills, mainly because their own parents were not emotional caregivers. The great news is that any parent can learn to improve their emotional caregiving, and every minor improvement that you make in emotional caregiving will make a fantastic impact on your children’s health and happiness.

2. Become emotionally literate. Emotional literacy involves learning to accurately identify, understand, and reflect feelings. When we become emotionally literate, we finally understand our children’s feelings and can help them process their feelings in adaptive (vs. maladaptive) ways. Emotional literacy involves learning the words to define how we feel, which often bring strange and uncomfortable negative emotions out of the shadows where they can be examined without shame. Begin by learning to more fully define common emotions like Anger, Sadness, and Joy. Think of them as the tip of an iceberg. When we look below the surface, we can find rich, detailed information about the source of the feeling.

anger iceberg the gottman institute

The Anger Iceberg graphic is courtesy of The Gottman Institute

3. Learn mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are able to modulate our feelings by recognizing that they exist but are not a threat. Our primitive brains, developed to protect us from life-threatening events such as lion attacks, floods, fires, and marauding intruders, latch on to negative emotions and treat them as if they, too, are life-threatening. When we learn mindfulness, we learn to engage our advanced prefrontal cortex, which helps us recognize our feelings without judgment and allow them to pass through us without resorting to mindless and potentially harmful action. Parents can integrate mindfulness into their own behavior, and also teach their children to become more mindful. Here is a video we created to help you understand one basic mindfulness techniques:

The healing process for your child will likely impose some fundamental changes in how your family operates. These changes will feel uncomfortable, but they can also lead to a deeper, more meaningful family connection over time.

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