When your child has an eating disorder you need to talk about it. I know it can be hard to do this. Most of us are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. But it’s important to know that almost anything is better than not talking about it.
When we don’t talk about eating disorders we leave our child to process their fear and pain by themselves. This can feel lonely and shameful and exacerbate eating disorder behaviors.
When we talk about eating disorders we make it safe for our child to tell us how they are feeling. We get to participate in recovery rather than watch from the sidelines. And we learn valuable insights into how we make our child feel and what we need to do to be better parents.
Because there’s no such thing as perfect parenting. But all of us can learn and grow into better parents. And your child’s eating disorder can be a great reason to work on this.
“Having an eating disorder can be like the elephant in the room: it’s making a mess but nobody will look at it, feel it, or talk about it.”
Let’s talk about eating disorders: Direct approach
Sometimes the easiest way to talk about something is just to open the conversation. This can feel like a triggering, emotional conversation. But it doesn’t have to be so scary if you realize that talking about eating disorders is better than not talking about them.
Here are some simple ways to begin:
I’ve noticed you’re struggling with food, and I’d like to talk about it.
You’re saying a lot of negative things about your body lately, and I want to talk about it.
Important: these are conversation openers. Don’t demand answers or details or get aggressive about this conversation. Just because you want to talk about it right now doesn’t mean they are necessarily ready to reciprocate. Don’t avoid these conversations, but also give your child time and space to open up to you. If your child refuses to talk to you, please get support so that you can find out how to help.
Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve avoided it
Lots of parents avoid talking about eating disorders. I get it. It can be hard to figure out how to do this, and you’re probably afraid you’ll do or say the wrong thing. But it’s essential that you not avoid talking about it. Find the courage to start talking and you’ll find it gets easier.
Here’s a way to begin: I notice that I’ve been avoiding talking about your eating and body image with you. I’m really sorry about that – it’s not OK to let you struggle with this alone. I’m here to support you, and I’m not going to avoid these conversations anymore.
Let’s talk about eating disorders: When they’ve avoided it
Maybe you’ve tried to talk about it but your child resists conversation. This might look like shutting down, leaving, or yelling at you. These are signs that you need to do some relational repair. And there are lots of ways to do it, but the first is to directly address what is going on and let them know that talking is important.
Here’s a way to begin: I notice that when I try to talk to you about your eating and body image stuff you avoid talking to me. This is really important, and I’m here to support you, so I’m going to keep trying to talk about it with you.
Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve been upset
This is a tricky subject, so maybe when you try to talk about it you start crying or become visibly anxious. I understand this happens. But when we’re facing a major issue like an eating disorder parents need to dig deep and step into their “parent role.” This means you get to process your feelings elsewhere, but when you’re parenting, you remain calm and confident. Please get some help so that you can start doing this.
Here’s a way to begin: I’ve been thinking about my behavior and I think my fear has led me to get upset when we talk about eating and body issues. I’m really sorry about that because it can make you feel as if I can’t handle this. I want you to know that I can handle this, and I’m not going to put my fear on you anymore.
Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve been critical
Some of us have a critical defense mechanism. This means that when we’re scared we tend to criticize the person we love so much. I understand why this happens, but it’s really important that you change this behavior. You should never criticize your child, especially about their eating and body issues. Please get some help so that you can stop doing this.
Here’s a way to begin: I’ve been thinking about my behavior and I think my fear has led me to be critical when we talk about eating and body issues. I’m really sorry about that, and I’m working on it. I want you to know that you never deserve to be criticized by anyone, especially me, and I’m not going to do it anymore.
Let’s talk about eating disorders: What not to say/do
We don’t want to avoid the elephant in the room anymore. But that doesn’t mean you should just jump in and start talking without having a game plan. There are some things you should avoid saying and doing, including:
- Don’t ask “what do you want me to do?” This is tempting. And of course sometimes it might be appropriate. But in general, keep in mind that our children want us to know how to parent them. When you say this you risk abdicating your responsibility to them.
- Don’t say “I’m so worried about you.” Of course you are worried. But our children don’t deserve the burden of our fear. Process your fear with a trusted adult, not with your child.
- Don’t say “I just want you to be you again” Of course you do. But your child is who they are. When you say this it could make them feel that an older version of them was preferred. Recovery rarely means going backwards – it almost always means stepping into a new way of being.
- Don’t say “I don’t know what to do.” Kids need parents to be in charge of parenting. They need us to be able to handle their stuff. Don’t show your fear and anxiety to your child. Present a confident, calm parent persona to your child.
- Don’t cry, yell, or avoid conversations. You get to have all your feelings. And I understand you are upset and this is hard. But try to avoid sharing your strong, fearful feelings while talking to your child. Your child needs to know you can handle this, and we don’t want them to feel guilty for having a hard time.
- Don’t criticize, minimize, or try to fix or change your child’s feelings. Eating disorders are emotional processing disorders. Validate your child’s feelings. Help your child feel their feelings. Don’t try to get them to change how they feel or look on the bright side.
Get some help
Having a child with an eating disorder is stressful and it is not something you should try to do alone. This is not basic parenting. This is not business as usual.
Your child needs treatment, but you need help, too. When parents don’t change during eating disorder recovery, it’s very hard for their child to stay in recovery. What you do makes a difference.
When parents grow and learn during recovery, 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 founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.