What can you do if you love a perfectionist who has an eating disorder? Luckily, there’s a lot you can do! First, let’s take a look at some facts:
- Perfectionism is both a risk factor for and commonly co-occurs with eating disorders. Many people who have an eating disorder also have perfectionism. And perfectionism is damaging to almost every aspect of mental health.
- Perfectionism is preventable and treatable, especially in children and teens. Luckily, perfectionism, which is often a response to anxiety, is both preventable and treatable. Recovering from perfectionism is often a significant part of eating disorder recovery.
- Parents can have a significant impact on reducing and treating perfectionism. Almost nobody is as important to reversing the effects of perfectionism as parents. Perfectionism is not hard-wired; it’s a response to environmental factors in the family. This means parents and the family can help reverse it.
When a person is both a perfectionist and has an eating disorder they are attempting to find safety through their behaviors. Whether it’s making sure their hair and homework are just right (perfectionism) or limiting their food to only “healthy” choices (eating disorder), both impact quality of life and mental health.
Here are five ways that parents can help a perfectionist who has an eating disorder recover from both conditions. These efforts need to be done consistently and intentionally every day to help a child reduce performance anxiety and find peace.
1. Show your child that it’s safe to make mistakes
Many parents tell their kids they can make mistakes, but then when kids do make mistakes, parental behavior suggests that mistakes are unacceptable. Pay attention to how you feel and behave when your child makes a mistake. Loosen your body and face, and feel from within that your child is lovable and fabulous with their mistakes.
What this looks like: When a child comes home with a lower score than you would expect on a test, respond neutrally. Keep your face relaxed, and thank them for sharing their score with you. If they want to talk about it, keep your comments focused on reassuring them that everyone misses their goals sometimes. And one score doesn’t make a grade.
With an eating disorder: When a child complains that they didn’t “eat healthy” or don’t like their body, respond neutrally. Don’t try to convince them that they ate perfectly or look amazing. Instead, let them know that what they eat changes day to day, and food does not have the power to make or break their health. And remind them that looking perfect is an arbitrary, impossible goal, and there is no such thing in real life.
2. Hold off on fixing
Most parents jump in too quickly with advice and solutions. This perpetuates the belief that mistakes are intolerable. Part of how we show kids that mistakes are OK is by being supportive without trying to fix the problem. We can agree that making mistakes is hard, tell them we understand that it feels bad, and show them that we can handle any mistake without changing how we feel about them.
What it looks like: In the case of the lower score, you will be tempted to ask them about their studying techniques or how they can bring their grade up. Resist this temptation! A perfectionist does not need anyone to tell them how to fix mistakes. They need people who can accept their mistakes and trust that whatever happens next is all right. You generally don’t have to worry about a perfectionistic child under-performing unless they are suffering from performance anxiety induced by perfectionism.
With an eating disorder: Avoid trying to help them prepare the perfect meal or find the perfect outfit. Don’t get into long discussions about how they can achieve their goal weight. Let them find their own solutions to their problems rather than diving in to try and fix them.
3. Make mistakes & talk about them
Many parents try to hide their own mistakes or at least not talk about them. Normalize mistake-making by intentionally talking about how it feels when you make a mistake. Look for opportunities to talk about your mistakes on purpose. Make mistakes on purpose and talk about them. This may be challenging for you if you also have perfectionism. But most of us can achieve great things on behalf of our kids’ health.
What it looks like: Open the fridge and see that you forgot something. Say “Oops! I forgot milk again. Oh well, that’s OK, we can handle it.” Don’t say this to your child directly – it’s not an apology. Saying it out loud means they can hear how to handle mistakes with self-compassion.
With an eating disorder: If you make a mistake like commenting on someone’s body (including theirs or your own), just apologize and move on. You don’t have to make a big deal about it or over-apologize. Everyone makes mistakes, and every time you make a mistake is an opportunity to show your child that it’s OK.
4. Talk about other people’s mistakes with compassion
Many parents berate strangers, food servers, retail workers, drivers on the road, and others when they make mistakes. This is modeling to your child that mistakes are something to feel ashamed of.
What it looks like: Instead of criticizing others when they make a mistake, take a deep breath. If it’s your husband who forgot the milk, open the fridge door and say “Oops! Dan forgot milk again. Oh well, that’s OK, we can handle it.” Show your child that you accept other people’s mistakes readily and without criticism.
With an eating disorder: If someone talks about dieting or weight loss, you can recognize that it’s problematic but also normalized in our culture. You don’t need to get overly angry when people do this, though you should talk about it directly with your child. Let them know that you don’t blame the person for their comment, but you also don’t endorse weight loss in any way.
5. Talk about perfectionism
Talk about perfectionism with compassion and kindness. You don’t want to turn “being a perfectionist” into something your child feels ashamed of. Instead, you can treat perfectionism as a part of your child (not the whole). No child is all one thing. We want to be very careful about pathologizing our child and treating them as if they are a victim of their impulses or coping behaviors.
What it looks like: When your child is upset because they made a mistake you can say things like “oh, I see your perfectionism is feeling bad about this. Let’s talk about it.” Then let your child process and untangle their perfectionist part from the part of them that accepts mistakes and feels safe with you.
With an eating disorder: When your child is upset about their eating or body, say things like “oh, I understand what it’s like to have a perfectionist’s voice. I know how hard it is, so let’s talk about it.” Then talk about the part of themselves who criticizes their choices and body.
You are the difference-maker
If your child is both a perfectionist and has an eating disorder, follow these five steps to help them recover. Your child’s therapist cannot do this alone in a one-hour meeting. It’s really best if you can reinforce acceptance at home in every possible moment.
Perfectionism is a social response, so it’s best treated in social situations. Nobody is better situated to counteract perfectionism than a parent who has consciously and intentionally decided to help their child avoid the tendency toward and consequences of perfectionism. When parents take this on and learn new skills, kids feel better.
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.