Three gifts to give your child who has an eating disorder

Giving gifts is a beautiful tradition, and most parents love the opportunity to shower their kids with presents on birthdays and holidays. If your child has an eating disorder, here are a few gift ideas.

Reframing eating disorders

Eating disorders, like all maladaptive coping mechanisms (including substance abuse, self-harm, and many behavioral addictions such as shopping, gambling, and gaming) appear to be a superficial problem. We say things like “just eat,” and “just stop binging,” or “just stop shopping,” and “just stop using.” These simplistic remedies seem to make a lot of sense to those of us who are not struggling with a behavioral addiction.

But in fact, behavioral addictions and maladaptive coping mechanisms arise from a deep sense of loneliness, lack of self-worth, and pain. The problem is not the eating/starving/purging/drinking/cutting. The problem is that we are in pain, and we are trying to soothe our pain with eating/starving/purging/drinking/cutting.

When parents can see eating disorders in this light, their own behavior can change. They can see that they are not trying to get their child to start or stop doing something – instead, they can start trying to help their child manage their pain.

And the best way that parents can help their children manage pain is to show up in new and different ways. This doesn’t mean you’ve been doing things wrong. It just means you can do things differently now.

Gift 1: Don’t take things personally

Humans are innately self-focused, which means we tend to take things very personally. Sometimes this can benefit our kids, partners and coworkers, as we are willing to take responsibility for our actions. But more often, our tendency to take things personally causes us to act in ways that are counter-productive and can hurt the people we care about.

When a child has an eating disorder, parents are typically living in a state of high agitation. This is caused by the fact that we can’t help but dwell on the fact that our child is doing something we don’t want them to do, and we can’t help but think about how we might have contributed to this suffering or what we can do to make it stop.

This sort of endless rumination most often leads to us feel defensive about our behavior. When we feel defensive, we build a wall around ourselves to protect our vulnerability. These walls cut us off from our children in an attempt to avoid our feelings of guilt and shame about our parenting abilities.

Defensive parents are not able to help their children manage their pain. Instead, defensive parents are stuck in their own pain. It is a great gift when parents learn to not take things personally and drop our defensiveness so that we can offer our love to our child unencumbered by our own need for validation.

This does not mean you are supposed to not have needs. It’s just that we can’t look to our kids to help us soothe our needs for validation and support. Learning to not take things personally takes time and practice, and it’s best done with the help of a professional therapist or coach who will work with you to learn non-defensive coping mechanisms.

Gift 2: Date your children

When we date someone, we make special efforts to be alone together. We put energy and intention into making ourselves attractive to the person we are dating. And we focus on the other person’s positive qualities, often praising them and complimenting them.

By the time our children develop eating disorders, most of us have noticed increasing levels of distance between ourselves and our kids. This is considered to be a normal and natural part of our kids’ growth. But it’s also very dangerous.

What can happen is that our kids find it easier and more fun to be with their peers, and thus spend less time with us. The more distance grows between us, the harder it can feel to reconnect. This often feels like rejection to us, which we then justify with cultural statements such as “it’s normal for kids to hate their parents.” Or “I try, but she just doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

These statements are completely normalized, but they are also very dangerous. Maintaining a close connection with our children throughout their adolescence and young adulthood can help protect them against all sorts of dangerous situations and behaviors, including eating disorders, self harm, and addiction.

Try dating your child. Set up some activities that you can do together regularly. Make them special. Make them sacred. Do not skip dates or forget about them. Don’t be late to dates. Invest in your relationship with your child.

Your child may moan and groan. They may say they don’t want to go or even get mean and say it’s “stupid” and “dumb” to spend time together. But hold on. Don’t let go. Insist upon spending time together alone. Spend that time focusing on their best qualities. Flatter, compliment, and soothe your child. These dates are never the time for discussions about poor grades or negative behaviors. They are time to build a deep, loving connection.

Gift 3: Take away the devices

Many parents give electronic devices like smart phones, tablets, and computers as gifts. But consider a new approach. Sure, you can still give your child a device. But set up device-free times during which all members of the family put devices away and spend time together.

Device-free time may seem boring and unmanageable. You might be tempted to give in when people whine and complain about the lack of devices. You might not want to give up your own device. But it’s OK. Do it anyway.

Time without devices means time during which conversations happen spontaneously. We all naturally restrict our conversation when people are on devices because we assume they are engaged in something important and we don’t want to interrupt them. This does not happen when a person is engaged in reading a book, staring out the window, or playing a board game. The ability to start random conversations is how intimacy builds.

Devices should be put away when you are eating together as a family. They should be a different room to avoid the temptation to look at incoming texts and alerts. Try to have device-free family meals once per day, and then extend the device-free time through the after-dinner clean-up. Try to extend it further a few times per week with a family board game or reading time.

People will complain. You may even miss your own device. But don’t take this as a sign that you should not go device-free. In fact, consider the analogy to your child’s eating disorder behaviors. You would like your child to cease their eating disorder behaviors, right? Well, that requires them to delay gratification and sit through discomfort. When the family is required to go device-free, they are all delaying gratification and sitting through discomfort, too. Eating disorders are just as compelling as your phone.

It is uncomfortable to stop using eating disorder behaviors, and it is uncomfortable to not hold your phone, respond to every text, and check on every ping. But you can do it, just like your child can recover from their eating disorder.

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