Negotiating with your child who has an eating disorder

Negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder can feel like negotiating with a terrorist. And we all know that you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, right? When your child has an eating disorder, the negotiations often seem bizarre and infuriating. Most of the time, parents just want their child to eat. It just doesn’t seem like something that needs to be negotiated.

So what’s a parent to do? Most of us can see when we’re hitting a wall with our child. We can see that the more our children mature, the less our strong-arming and control tactics work. With eating disorders, we feel frustrated with our child’s inability to be flexible on something as (seemingly) simple as eating.

Children who have eating disorders are incredibly strong, and we find that we are rarely able to get our way. Even when we do “win” and get our way, we suspect that our child is sneaking around our backs and doing what they want to anyway.

We’re probably right.

The problem is the approach

The problem is usually in how we approach a fight, dispute or negotiation with our kids. Most of us were raised by parents who told us to do things “because I said so.” We have also been immersed in movies, television, and other forms of media that have reinforced that people who are in power – including CEOs and parents – get what they want by controlling the situation, yelling to get the point across, and holding a firm line.

The trouble is that most people do not respond well to that form of leadership. In fact, most human beings resent being told what to do. Even if they do what you tell them to, they find ways to rebel against anyone who constantly and oppressively exerts unilateral power over them. In these situations, even reasonable requests fall on deaf and resistant ears. When we can’t agree on even very simple things like food, we become deadlocked.

“You need to eat.”

“No.

“You have to eat.”

“No.”

It’s not working

We see this sort of standoff in parenting all the time. We see it even more with kids who have an eating disorder. These kids often stubbornly refuse to follow reasonable requests to nourish their starving bodies.

Most often when we try strong-arm tactics with our kids, we see them dig their heels in and refuse. And there’s often very little we can do about that. The more we dig our heels in, the more resistant our kids become to even our most reasonable requests. They will actively work against us even as we seek to help them improve their chances of happiness and success.

The current term for this is “oppositional defiance,” which serves to medicalize and codify a behavior as old as time: a child’s rebellion against a parent.

Business lessons in negotiation

One place that we have found some excellent research for this is in the business world. You may think that business leadership is drastically different from parenting, but there are more similarities than you may think. Business leaders frequently need to motivate employees in emotionally-charged situations. And, frankly, it’s easier to study motivation and leadership at work than a parent-child relationship.

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There is an excellent book that all parents who want to positively influence their child’s life should read: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. It’s a quick read and will give you a whole new perspective on conflict resolution.

The authors teach us some fundamental concepts to help us achieve agreement with even the most stubborn opponent. The core concept is that we must abandon our need to win an argument. Instead, we must pursue agreement.

This means we will not always get our way, but when working with other people (yes, even and perhaps especially our children), we must always pursue respectful collaboration and allow individuation. This does not mean we get railroaded or become passive. Quite the opposite. We become highly engaged partners in working with our children to find mutually agreeable resolutions that make sense.

Sound impossible? Read the book and you will understand more.

Here are a few highlights:

1. Separate people from issues

One of the first goals in “getting to yes” is to separate people from issues. We want to de-personalize the situation so that we can clarify the actual issue without resorting to personal attacks and judgment, which inevitably leads to a powerful shame response that gets us nowhere.

When we focus on the issue, not the person, we avoid damaging our most precious relationships and make it clear that the relationship is the most precious element of all. We must avoid blame and shame – both inflicting it and feeling it ourselves.

This can take a monumental effort from parents, but it can have staggeringly impressive effects. The more we can see ourselves in partnership with our kids, rather than in conflict with them, the better our chances are of reaching a mutual agreement.

2. Don’t focus on your position

Most of us begin a negotiation by stating our position. Most of the time each party states their position and then works to build their argument in support of that position.

This is an inefficient method of reaching an agreement because it encourages stubbornness and tends to harm each person’s relationship with the other.

In short, the more we argue against each other’s position, the worse we feel about the other person and our relationship with them. This creates a belief that we are adversaries, not in a loving relationship with each other. This is not a good situation for parents or children, and yet we find ourselves doing it over and over again.

3. Do focus on interests

Instead of focusing on your position, focus on your interests. What do you care about, and why? When you discuss a problem from the perspective of interests, there is no “winner” and “loser,” only different interests.

This makes it much easier to reach a mutual agreement because nobody feels they have to sacrifice their pride if they agree to the other person’s interests. This is critical with our children, who want to establish themselves as independent from us. They may be willing to do many more things if we only let them know our interests rather than our position.

The difference is subtle but profound: “you have to take out the trash” (position) vs. “it is important to me that we all contribute to the household. All of us contribute to our family in different ways. What I’d like you to do is take out the trash.” (interest)

4. Generate options

Once you shift from positions to interests, you can see that there are now options available. In the example above, if your goal is to have everyone contribute, then you need to be open options other than taking out the trash.

This doesn’t mean the trash doesn’t get taken out, but it does mean that your child feels they can meet your interests in a way that is mutually agreeable rather than dictated by you.

Giving our kids some leeway in achieving our interests gives them personal agency and a sense of control over their own destiny. When we generate options, we allow our kids to participate in deciding they will do rather than simply dictating what they will do.

It is a well-known fact that while dictators may obtain short-term power, they inevitably breed rebellion and often meet devastating consequences at the hands of their disgruntled constituents.

5. Avoid win-lose mentality

Getting to yes means that both parties agree on a resolution. They have typically both made some compromises in their original positions. Getting to yes takes significantly more time than just saying “because I say so,” especially when a parent has previously used command and control techniques.

Our children need time to gain trust and believe that we are truly interested in finding a respectful resolution.

It is important therefore to mentally prepare yourself by remembering that there is no winner or loser when it comes to parenting. There is no victor in conversations with our children because even when we think we have won, we have lost something in the relationship as a result. Instead, we need to consciously avoid any win-lose mentality and seek connection above all outcomes.

But seriously: when things get really hairy

Of course, eating disorder behaviors are terrifying, and negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder is really hard. Most parents desperately want to intervene and stop the behaviors.

It may seem to you that all this talk of mutual agreement is nice and dandy if you aren’t facing a life-or-death situation, and in some cases, it may be true that you have to step in and take some control over your child’s nutrition for a while to get them to a baseline weight at which you can begin to collaborate. If this is your situation, please get help with Family Based Treatment, which is designed to do just this.

But most of the time this is not the case. Most of the time we are struggling over behaviors that drive us crazy but that are not imminently life-threatening. In these cases, if our child is medically stable, we can focus on the relationship and connection during disputes rather than some goal outcome (i.e. stopping the eating disorder behavior right now).

Desperate for the bottom line

When desperate, a lot of us seek what we consider to be a “bottom line.” We consider this our protection against a powerful or irrational opponent. But what negotiation research has shown is that a better approach is to establish the best possible step towards your interests. Negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder is hard, but it’s easier if we focus on the big picture instead of the bottom line.

This requires recognizing that we cannot force someone to do what we want them to do, but we may be able to influence them a little bit in our direction. Find small ways to get small “yesses” from your child. Maybe they can’t agree to all of your interests at this time, but can they agree to one small step. Maybe they can’t eat the whole meal, but they can eat some of it and sit with the family for the entirety of the meal. Work with your child’s nutritionist and/or therapist if you need some help with how to set this up.

Small yesses help our child gradually trust that we their parents respect their individuality and help them see that our interests, especially when it comes to their recovery from an eating disorder, are in their own best interest.

When we do this, we avoid trying to force our child to bend to our will and instead show them that we respect their individuality and unique perspective. Negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder should involve respect for the people involved, with an understanding that eating disorder behaviors are not in our best interest.

In time, peaceful and respectful negotiation inspired by “Getting to Yes” is likely to build a strong, collaborative relationship and ultimately bring us closer as families.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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