Emotional repression, the gateway to eating disorders, and how parents can help kids feel their feelings

For the first time in history, our kids are more actively stressed than we (their parents) are. Our kids are living with high levels of anxiety, fear, and worry about everything from their bodies to their grades, their performance to their social standing, politics and climate change, and, well, just about everything.

Our kids are living with levels of high anxiety, and it’s hurting them. It’s hurting their ability to feel good about themselves, and it’s hurting their life prospects. It’s also terrible for their health.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is highly correlated with every major disease. A lifetime of stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on our kids’ long term health. While we worry about whether they are getting enough fruits and vegetables, the anxiety that runs in the background of their minds is actually determining their future health. While we worry about their weight, it is their anxiety that will actually impact their longevity and health.

One of the greatest sources of chronic stress is repressed emotions. This is because repressing emotions takes far more energy than feeling and fully-processing emotions the first time they come around.

When we repress our emotions, we are kept in a never-ending process keeping them repressed. Think of it this way: it takes a lot more energy to swim while trying to keep a beach ball submerged underwater compared to simply allowing the beach ball to float alongside us as we swim.

How most parents respond to negative emotions

Most of us were raised to repress and downplay our emotions, especially the so-called negative emotions like anger, fear, and hurt. If we are female, we were taught by well-meaning parents, teachers, peers, and religious leaders that little girls should be sweet, kind, and easygoing. We were taught in ways explicit and implicit that being loud, angry, and fearful is unattractive, and that being attractive is essential to being a good girl. If we are male, we were taught that being sad and afraid was unacceptable.

As a result of this thorough training that we all underwent, most of us unconsciously train our own children in the same way. When she cries, we wipe her tears and tell her everything is fine. When she yells, we shush her and tell her to quiet down and come back when she can control herself. When she tells us she is afraid, we dismiss her fears as irrational and tell her there’s nothing to worry about.

Almost none of us know that what we can and should actually do is allow our children (girls and boys) to have all of their emotions, feelings and anxieties. What almost none of us know how to do is accept our kids’ emotions gracefully and without fear.

It’s not just parents – our society hates emotions

It should be said that most of us are not great at processing emotions. This is through no fault of our own – it’s hard to feel feelings when you have been taught to repress them your whole life.

But even if a parent is an excellent emotional processor who fully accepts their child’s emotions, our kids still live in a society that discourages negative emotions.

Even if we do everything to the best of our ability, our society will still teach our girls and boys to play a closely-defined gender role when it comes to emotions. Those who rebel and refuse to meet the standards of emotional repression are often ostracized and bullied.

The gateway to eating disorders

It’s no surprise, nor is it debatable that our kids are born with the ability and the freedom to fully express and process their emotions. It’s also not a secret that over time, because they are driven to pursue full parental and societal love and acceptance, our kids learn to feel guilt and shame every time they feel a negative emotion. They learn to believe that negative emotions much be repressed because they are “not allowed” or “not appropriate.”

This is a very bad thing, because emotions are physical as much as mental. They never fail to exist – they only go underground, where, in an effort to gain acknowledgement and acceptance, they wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.

Think of the beach ball that you’re trying to keep underwater. It takes tremendous energy to keep it down, and inevitably, every once in a while it explodes out of the water, and then we must scramble to get it back down again. The process is exhausting and endless, because no matter how hard we try, the ball will never stay underwater peacefully. It will fight for freedom.

Repressed emotions are the perfect gateway to eating disorders. Keeping our emotions underground becomes easier if we find ways to numb and disconnect from our emotions. One of the best ways to do this is through coping mechanisms like eating disorders, self-harm, and addiction.

Eating disorders feel good

Something few parents who have kids who have eating disorders realize is that our eating disorders feel good!

Eating disorders may look dangerous, but the person who has an eating disorder finds them to be a perfect way to find peace from the emotional turmoil that is always roiling beneath the surface. Eating disorders are the way some of us manage live in a world that requires us to repress our emotions.

Even if we know intellectually that eating disorders are unhealthy, and even if we feel shame over them because we believe they are “stupid” or “disgusting,” our eating disorders still make us feel better in the short-term. Our eating disorders may look like monsters, but they feel like the ultimate caregiver.

The path to healing from an eating disorder

This is why the path to healing from an eating disorder is an emotional one. Most of us who have eating disorders must relearn what it means to feel emotions. We have hidden and repressed them for so long that we must slowly, gradually, rebuild our connection with our emotions.

The path to full emotional health requires us to actually feel – sometimes for the first time in years or even decades. Feeling for the first time after an eating disorder is excruciating. Many of us relapse because of the terror of facing our negative emotions without our favorite numbing agent.

When we have repressed our emotions and used our eating disorders to avoid feeling feelings, recovery means feeling again, and this unleashes physical sensations of panic similar to what we would feel if we were being chased by a tiger. I am not exaggerating. It’s really, really scary. Feeling feelings after an eating disorder is terrifying. But it is necessary in order to heal.

Over time, it gets easier. Once we learn to feel our emotions in a healthy, regular way, we no longer need to numb them away. We start to realize that trying to keep the beach ball underwater was an unnecessary use of our time, energy, and intellect. When we start swimming alongside the beach ball, we free up space, and the eating disorder is no longer necessary.

How parents can help

Parents can help their children recover from an eating disorder by first learning to better process their own emotions. Emotional hygiene is something few of us learned in childhood, and almost all parents need more of it. The best and fastest way to do this is to work with a qualified therapist. The truth is that it often takes years to learn emotional hygiene, but any small step forward is a great start!

Next, parents can help their kids recover by accepting and allowing their kids to experience all emotions. When your kids’ fear, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions arise, let them. Don’t try to stop them. Be there, as steady as a rock, and allow your child’s emotions to surround you without fear of being swept away. It’s exhausting to do this work for your child, and it takes practice, but there is nobody who can do it better than you. It is, quite possibly, the greatest gift any of us can give to our children.

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