If your child in in recovery for an eating disorder, it’s very possible that they feel sad. And maybe this is making you sad, too. Most parents feel overwhelmed handling the eating disorder behavior, and don’t know what to do when sadness shows up.
As parents, we want to protect our children from uncomfortable feelings, especially sadness and despair. Most of us came into parenting during the time of a glut of Happiness books, speeches, and articles. Scientists explored exactly how we can increase our happiness with daily tasks, based on the assumption that being happier is always better.
Most of us, when asked, will say that what we want most of all is for our kids to be happy.
We may embrace sayings like “good vibes only” and strive every day to turn lemons into lemonade. When our children feel sad, we jump through hoops to try and remedy it as soon as possible – to return to happy.
The tyranny of happy
It sounds really nice to pursue happiness, but the fact is that many of us who pursue a happier life find ourselves actually feeling emptier and sadder. Why?
Because it turns out that sadness is a part of natural emotional hygiene. To expect ourselves – and our children – to live in a state of perpetual happiness is to deny the natural fluctuation of emotions.
Feeling sadness and any negative emotion is not only normal, it’s actually healthier than trying to force ourselves to remain in a constant state of bliss.
When we have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s hard not to think that we need to help our child find a higher state of happiness in life. We may think that recovery from their eating disorder will mean a return to happiness.
Certainly, if our child is depressed, we should seek treatment for that condition. But the opposite of depression is not eternal happiness. The opposite of depression is the ability to feel a full range of emotions, including sadness.
Recovery from an eating disorder does not mean happiness all the time or never feeling sad. It means we recognize and metabolize the full range of emotions including, but not limited to happiness. This means we need to feel free to experience anger, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, and the thousands of other emotions that make us human.
Parents who are afraid of the full range of human emotions are likely to get uncomfortable with this. They may accidentally try to interfere with natural emotional ranges by pursuing happiness rather than allowing sadness and other negative emotions.
But parents need to accept all mood states, not just the positive ones.
The first step in learning emotional hygiene – the natural metabolism of emotions throughout each and every day – is to acknowledge that our emotions run a wide range. We have to acknowledge that we are not meant to remain in a steady emotional state.
In fact, that is a clear sign of depression: the lack of emotional fluctuation. Take some time in your family to acknowledge that feelings come and go every single day. We all have a broad range of positive, negative and neutral feelings, and that is absolutely healthy.
Building emotional literacy, or the ability to put a name on your emotions, helps to build emotional resilience and reduce shame around negative emotional states. When we talk about our feelings, we allow them to exist without worrying that they will last forever. Talking about emotions is a daily practice that we can all work on in our families.
Some of us find it helpful to print out lists of emotions to help us name them. It’s too easy to call every negative feeling afraid, angry or sad, and that’s certainly a good place to start, but there are so many nuances to those feelings. We can add words like despair, fear, horror, and shame to help us better define our feelings and thus allow them out into the light where they can breathe and move on.
Don’t forget that sometimes we need to combine feelings to get an accurate picture. For example, before a big event, a child may say they feel scared. But upon deeper reflection, they are a combination of nervous and excited. You can even put these words together to form new feelings, like “nercited.”
Even if we are able to name our feelings and have a broad emotional vocabulary, we still have to work hard to welcome the negative feelings into our lives.
Almost all of us were taught to reject, deny and ignore negative emotions. A good reason for this is that negative feelings make parents very uncomfortable.
As little children, our parents, in wanting what was best for us, probably tried to get us to stop crying rather than welcome our tears and reassure us that they were perfectly natural and healthy. These lessons learned every day for many years, taught us to hide negative mood states.
In supporting our own child through the eating disorder recovery process, we can learn to welcome the full gamut of our family’s feelings. Every member of our family is going to undergo mood states throughout the day, and a good portion of those feelings are going to be in the negative category.
Rather than not allowing negative feelings or trying to pretend that everything is just fine, practice instead welcoming these feelings.
Talk about the fact that life is challenging.
Sometimes it sucks.
But it will suck much, much more if feelings are repressed. In fact, repressed feelings are integral to almost all addictive and maladaptive behaviors, including eating disorders.
Most people who go through recovery for an eating disorder will be sad at times. But this doesn’t mean recovery is a failure; it means that recovery opens up a person to the full range of human emotion. And this is a sign of mental health.
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 More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.