Helping a child feel feelings in eating disorder recovery

A common part of eating disorder recovery is learning to feel feelings. This may seem like a strange task, but it may be the most important thing we need to do to achieve full recovery.

People who have an eating disorder typically become disconnected from their feelings. Rather than process feelings, someone with an eating disorder turns to food and exercise behaviors and an obsession with weight as a coping mechanism.

When we’re healthy, we recognize feelings and metabolize them as they arise. Mental health means that when feelings arise we don’t ignore, avoid, or use a coping behavior to distract ourselves from them. But in our culture many people are “feeling-phobic.” Most of us are desperate to avoid the negative feelings that are a part of being human.

What is your family’s emotional coping style?

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then it’s time to evaluate your family’s emotional coping style. Take a moment and think about:

  • Do we try to avoid negative feelings?
  • Have we tried to cheer up or distract our kids from negative feelings?
  • When a child gets upset, do we either get angry or shut down because it’s too hard for us?

These three behaviors are really common parenting practices. And they are also harmful, because they show our kids that their feelings are unsafe and dangerous. Feelings like anger, despair, loneliness, sadness, and betrayal are natural and normal parts of being human. And even though our intentions are good when we try to get our kids back to being happy, we’re accidentally creating a problem.

Rather than trying to get our kids “back to happy,” parents need to instead help kids feel all types of feelings without shame or fear.

Feeling feelings – the good and the bad

The goal for mental health is to feel both the good and bad feelings. This can be scary, since most of us were raised to fear bad emotions, and of course we have tried to shield our kids from bad feelings.

Some feelings that parents tend to welcome and encourage include:

  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Pleasure
  • Gratefulness
  • Contentment
  • Delight

Some feelings that parents tend to try to shut down and move past as quickly as possible include:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Guilt

How do we try to move past these emotions? Here are some ways:

FearDon’t be afraid! You’ll be all right.
AngerStop yelling! You need to calm down.
LonelinessDon’t be sad. Just call someone. Didn’t you have a good time with Dante last time you played with him?
DespairOh, it’s not so bad! Things will get better, I promise.
GuiltYou need to stop thinking about it and just fix it.

All of these responses feel perfectly normal in today’s parenting culture. However, they all do one thing: discount the child’s feelings, which are real. Even if you don’t agree with or like the feeling, the fact is that it exists, and denying it only creates side effects.

When parents try to skip negative feelings, we accidentally create conditions in which our children are afraid of feeling negative feelings. The message they receive when we try to move past their feelings too quickly is that negative feelings are dangerous and bad and should be avoided at all costs.

Yet feelings live in our bodies and are a sign of health. Our bodies were designed to feel a broad range of emotions, including negative ones. Having bad feelings isn’t a sign that something’s wrong. It’s a sign that our minds and bodies are behaving exactly as they should.

It is adaptive to feel negative feelings sometimes. It is maladaptive to try and avoid negative feelings.

Healing from an eating disorder

When our children are in the healing process from an eating disorder, they need to learn how to process their negative feelings. We tend to think the most important milestones in eating disorder recovery are a reduction in weight obsession and eating/exercise behaviors. But in fact the most important milestone in eating disorder recovery may be learning to feel feelings.

Eating disorders are a way to cope with feelings. So while lots of people can resist the temptation to use their eating disorder behaviors for a while, if they haven’t learned to feel their feelings, it’s likely they will return to their eating disorder when things get stressful (and they will).

Learning to feel feelings can be a painful process. When we first start to have negative feelings without the benefit of our coping mechanisms, we can feel deeply afraid and get triggered to act out our eating disorder or other destructive coping behavior.

This is why eating disorder recovery is so painful. It looks like the problem is food, exercise, and weight. But the real problem is feelings.

How to feel feelings

The first step in feeling feelings is noticing how often we have them. Most of us are so automatically averse to feeling negative feelings that it can take some time to notice them. Please remember that this is about practice, not perfection.

The best way to help your child navigate eating disorder recovery is to start practicing feeling feelings as a family. Bookmark or print out this simple guide and work together to help each other feel feelings, especially the negative ones.

This may sound like you’re all going to be incredibly depressed all the time. But I assure you that, just like clouds in the sky, negative feelings, when felt openly and freely, pass. As you get better at this practice, you will notice that even the most intense negative feelings can usually be fully felt and metabolized in fewer than five minutes. I’m not saying that in order to encourage you to use a stopwatch, but I’m just letting you know that it gets easier with practice.

Here are the steps to feeling feelings:

1. Notice

First, you have to recognize that you’re having a feeling. Sometimes this is the hardest part!

I’m having a feeling.

2. Locate

Find out where in your body you can feel the feeling. Our emotions live in our bodies, so it’s important not to try and turn a feeling into a thought. Feelings are much more than thoughts!

My head is pounding.
It feels hard to breathe.
My eyes are scrunching up.

3. Name

Give the feeling a name. Use the “Feelings Wheel” to help identify which one feels most likely. Try to go beyond the basics: angry, sad, and afraid. Stretch your emotional vocabulary to incorporate lots of feeling words.

I’m feeling lonely and hopeless, and I feel scared that I feel this way.

4. Accept

Accept the feeling. Tell it that it’s welcome to exist. Validate its existence.

I feel so alone right now.
This totally sucks for me.
I hate this.

5. Talk

Talk about the feeling and remind yourself that while the feeling is valid, it will pass. A feeling is important, but it’s also not a fact.

Self-Talk: Feeling bad feelings is so hard for me. I struggle to accept these sorts of feelings in myself. I feel scared when I feel these feelings.

With a Loved One: Feeling bad feelings can be scary. It makes sense that you struggle to accept all of your feelings. I’m so sorry you’re having these hard feelings, and I’m here for you.

6. Touch

Because feelings live in the body, it helps to touch or be touched with love and acceptance. In this way you are acknowledging the embodiment of the feeling.

Alone: I can soothe myself by touching my own skin lovingly – on my arm, my leg, my face. My touch transmits my love and acceptance physically to myself.

With a Loved One: I will soothe you by touching your skin lovingly in a place that you agree is comfortable and safe for you. With my touch, I’m transmitting my love and acceptance physically to you.

7. Sit

Give the feeling time to exist. Don’t rush it away or try to force it into gratefulness or happiness. This process will get easier the more completely you accept the negative feeling and validate it.

Alone: I’m going to sit here for a while and feel this feeling. I’m going to keep talking to myself and touching my skin to remember that I’m here, and I’m safe, and this feeling will pass.

With a Loved One: I’m going to sit here for as long as you feel this feeling. There’s nothing more important. Nothing else I need to do. I’m going to keep talking to you and touching your skin to remind you that I’m here, and you’re safe.

Here is a printable PDF to help (click to download):

I hope this helps you help your whole family build emotional resilience and the ability to feel all feelings. I know first-hand how hard it is to practice this, but I can also attest to the incredible healing power of feeling feelings. This takes patience. It is not easy. But it is well worth it.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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