Are you looking for ways to help your child recover from an eating disorder? If so, learning compassion is a great way to support eating disorder recovery.
Compassion for your child or loved one, and compassion for yourself will go a long way to helping everyone during the recovery process.
1. Giving compassion to your child in eating disorder recovery
Compassion for someone who is in eating disorder recovery looks like this:
I see you
This is a deep, deep need in all human beings, but it is especially important for a child to feel seen by her parents. She needs to be seen for who she is on the inside, not how she looks or behaves on the outside.
You are loved
You may think that your kids know this, but there is no limit to their need for love from you. It is a deep, driving force. Give them extreme love with words and actions.
I hear you
It can be hard to listen to a child who has disordered thoughts about her body and food. You want to fix them and make them go away. But just listen and acknowledge her thoughts and they will begin to loosen their hold on her mind.
I accept you
Unconditional love is when we are able to leave our judgement behind and love the person for who they are on the inside, regardless of their behavior. This doesn’t mean you have to like their behavior, but you will always love them.
Your feelings are valid
The trouble with feelings is that we become afraid that acknowledging them will make them permanent and intractable. But they aren’t. Feelings are real, and they should be free to come and go like clouds across a blue sky. Let your child talk about the clouds without fear or judgement.
I can handle this
A deep fear for anyone with a mental illness is that they will ruin all of their relationships and lose all love. As a parent, it is so important that you reassure your child that you can handle whatever happens with her, and that you will do your best to support and love her no matter what happens.
Why compassion helps with eating disorder recovery
Many people suffering from eating disorders feel compelled to repeat a self-destructive behavior despite evidence that it is harmful. Eating disorders can baffle people. They wonder “why can’t you just eat healthy?” But they are more complex than just food and weight.
Eating disorders are behavioral addictions that soothe and calm someone who feels anxious and out of control. Most people who have eating disorders also feel a sense of low self-worth. They seek to bolster their self-worth through food and exercise behaviors. They believe they will be more worthy when they achieve a certain weight.
Having compassion for a person who has an eating disorder means understanding that food and weight are just the tip of the iceberg. Compassion means that we understand that our child needs more than just food and eating advice. They need our affection, attention, and unconditional love.
The compassion mindset flips your thinking about the disorder from “this has to stop!” to “how can I support her towards change?”
Your child may need a team of professionals to recover. But compassion is something that you can give her for free, day in and day out. Practicing compassion will pay dividends for everyone in your family and your life.
2. Compassion for yourself when your child is in eating disorder recovery
Parents who have children who have eating disorders frequently suffer from compassion fatigue. They are exhausted by the care required to help their child heal.
Between doctors’ appointments, therapy appointments, and family therapy, you may be overwhelmed. But the answer to this is not to stop doing things or do less. The answer is often to give yourself compassion fo how hard this is.
Self-compassion is an incredible skill that most of us need to learn. It means that instead of trying to ignore our feelings, we allow them. You may have been raised to keep on a happy face. It’s possible your parents asked you to repress your negative emotions to keep the family peace. But emotional repression is unhealthy for everyone.
Instead, learn to give yourself compassion for all of your feelings, especially the negative ones.
The principles of self-compassion
When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we often use harsh, critical internal language – “You’re so stupid and lazy, I’m ashamed of you!” We would be unlikely to say such things to a close friend, or even a stranger for that matter. With self-kindness, we are supportive and understanding toward ourselves. Our inner dialogues are gentle and encouraging rather than harsh and belittling. This means that instead of continually punishing ourselves for not being good enough, we kindly acknowledge that we’re doing the best we can. Similarly, when external life circumstances are challenging and difficult to bear, we soothe and nurture ourselves.
The sense of common humanity recognizes that everyone fails, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong sometimes. We do not always get what we want and are often disappointed – either in ourselves or in our life circumstances. This is part of the human experience, a basic fact of life shared with everyone else on the planet. With self-compassion, we take the stance of a compassionate “other” toward ourselves, allowing us to take a broader perspective on our selves and our lives. By remembering the shared human experience, we feel less isolated when we are in pain. Self-compassion recognizes that we all suffer.
When we are mindful, we are experientially open to the reality of the present moment without judgment, avoidance, or repression. We must be willing to turn toward and experience our painful thoughts and emotions in order to embrace ourselves with compassion. While it might seem that our pain is blindingly obvious, many people do not acknowledge how much pain they’re in, especially when that pain stems from their own inner self-critic. Or when confronted with life challenges, people often get so lost in problem-solving mode that they do not pause to consider how hard it is in the moment. We recognize our thoughts and feelings in real-time.
Compassion will help all of you
Compassion is the key to navigating eating disorder recovery at home. While your child goes through treatment, every person in your family can benefit from more compassion.
Learn to give your child more compassion as they go through recovery. But don’t forget to give yourself compassion, too!
The “principles of compassion” are adapted from Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin D. Neff
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.