Many parents who have kids with an eating disorder tiptoe around difficult conversations because so many of them turn into screaming or yelling matches.
Parents who are facing an eating disorder naturally want to create a healing environment and try to avoid screaming and yelling. But an unfortunate side effect is that parents often feel they are constantly walking on eggshells. They avoid difficult conversations because they are afraid of triggering eating disorder behaviors. This makes perfect sense. But when we avoid difficult conversations we almost always make the situation worse, not better.
Because avoiding hard conversations separates us from the people we love. Also, avoiding tough conversations makes screaming and yelling more likely (not less) because complaints and disagreements get pent up and then inevitably erupt in unhelpful ways. This is a very common pattern that we frequently see in families with eating disorders.
The solution to avoiding yelling and screaming during eating disorder recovery is not to avoid difficult conversations, but to have difficult conversations more often, in a better way.
The cycle of repression
If you’re like most parents, then your child does stuff that drives you crazy, and you want to avoid yelling and screaming. So you find yourself avoiding conversations.
Here’s how it typically goes. You feel angry and you want them to stop whatever they’re doing or start doing something else. But you hold your tongue because you don’t want to risk triggering the eating disorder.
Everything feels so charged, and your child seems too fragile. So instead of talking about it you may raise your eyebrows or make a big huffing sound, but you don’t actually address the negative behavior.
The next day, your child does it again … or does something else that drives you crazy. Again, you hold your tongue, but you start having angry conversations with them in your head.
They are so irresponsible! They are so selfish! Just because they have an eating disorder doesn’t mean they get to treat you this way!
And then it happens again.They do something irritating and you repress your irritation to “keep the peace.”
The pressure builds
Your anger is growing, but you feel you can’t express it. You repress your feelings. But inside you’re boiling. You blame your child for the fact that you can’t express yourself openly and honestly. You call your friend and tell her your child is “driving you crazy.” You say things like “the truth is that I’m afraid of my own kid. They’re like a ticking time bomb. I live in fear.”
And it’s true. You are living in fear. And you are getting angrier and angrier.
Every time your kid does something you don’t like, the pressure builds inside of you. Your eyebrow raises, snarky comments, and unpleasantness spread like a virus through your house. Everyone feels it. And you blame your child for the nastiness because you’re repressing your feelings to protect their feelings. To keep them safe from their eating disorder and avoid yelling and screaming.
This is a very unhealthy place to be in a relationship. You are repressing your feelings in an effort to protect your child’s feelings. But the impact is that your child feels worse, you feel worse, and everyone feels worse. Because feelings can’t be repressed forever. They inevitably leak out or, sometimes, explode into yelling and screaming.
The good news is that there’s a very good solution to this problem. You just need to start having difficult conversations more frequently. And you need to learn how to have better difficult conversations.
How to have difficult conversations
Difficult conversations take time, energy, and a lot of practice. When you first begin this practice, you may be exhausted by how often you need to have difficult conversations. And they may be very, very difficult. They may include yelling and screaming – the very thing you’re trying to avoid. You may worry that it’s not working, and you may slip back into avoiding difficult conversations.
But when you commit yourself to having difficult conversations frequently, you will notice a steady improvement over time. Soon, difficult conversations will be much less difficult for everyone. There will be less yelling and screaming. With practice and the right strategy, difficult conversations get much, much easier.
With practice you will reach a place in which you are respectful and honest about what you want and need. And your child will feel respected because you are not avoiding hard conversations to protect their feelings. Parents who commit to the practice of having difficult conversations can transform their relationship with their children.
Here’s how to handle difficult conversations:
1. Identify how you feel
What do you notice inside of yourself? Sure, you may think your child is the problem, but look deeper. It’s OK to start at the point of blaming your child for your feelings, but don’t stay there. You need to keep digging. Identify what you are feeling, and claim your own feelings.
Feelings of anger and rage towards our children usually indicate that we are feeling insecure about something. Anger and rage frequently disguise feelings like fear, nervousness, disgust, discomfort, guilt, and shame.
These are all serious and valid feelings that you can claim as your own. Your child may be the person who is triggering your feelings, but they are never responsible for your feelings. Your feelings are always are yours to handle.
Until you claim your own feelings, you risk blaming your child for how you feel, and that’s typically when difficult conversations go awry.
2. Make a simple and direct statement
Often when we start a difficult conversation we overcomplicate things. We believe we have to get the other person to see things our way and agree with us. But this is not a useful way to begin a difficult conversation because the other person immediately feels manipulated and controlled. This is where yelling and screaming often begin.
Another mistake we make is criticizing or blaming the person for their behavior rather than making a direct request for what we want.
Start the conversation by making soft eye contact, using a gentle tone of voice, relaxed body language and voice, and make your intent crystal clear. Some examples:
Old version: You never take the trash out, and I always have to ask you. It’s so disrespectful! I don’t understand why we have to go over this again and again. You say you’re going to do it and then you don’t, and it feels like you just don’t care about me or this family that has given you so much.
New version: I’d like you to take the trash out by 8 p.m. each night without me asking.
Old version: Partying won’t get you anywhere in life. Aren’t you interested in doing better? What even happens at those parties anyway? I bet there’s drinking, and you know that’s not OK with us! I mean, come on! I bet Sarah’s parents won’t even be there! And doesn’t her brother use drugs?
New version: I get it that you want to go to the party. But I’m not OK with you going.
When we claim our own feelings and make the conversation about what we want, not about their character or bad manners, we get off to a much better start.
If you have already had this conversation in your head ten thousand times, you are going to need to work really hard not to assume your child’s answer. It’s critical to stop talking and really listen to their answers.
Hold this statement in your mind: I am a parent who loves my kid, and listening is loving.
It’s true: a person who feels listened to feels respected and loved. They are much more likely to do what we’re asking when they feel heard, understood, and loved.
Sometimes yelling and screaming is for a good reason: the person doing the yelling and screaming is literally trying to make you hear them. You can bring the volume down by listening before it hits high volumes.
Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. And be careful not to respond with something about them, like “you always/never do this.” Remember to claim your own feelings in this situation rather than blaming your child for how you feel.
Be willing and confident to dive as deeply as you need to in order to uncover what’s really going on for your child. Don’t assume you already know why they’re doing the irritating thing. All negative behavior comes from some unmet emotional need. They are rarely intentional or designed to hurt us. When parents seek to identify and address the emotional need, kids’ negative behaviors typically recede and get much easier to handle.
4. Prepare to repeat yourself
As the conversation progresses, simply share again how you would like things to be. Don’t try to convince them of your perspective. But do look for common ground, and build on areas of agreement. Then pause and listen.
Listening more than you speak is almost always the best advice when having a difficult conversation with your child. If you’re asking them to do something they don’t want to do, then just say what it is and then listen. Then say it again and listen some more. Keep it simple and direct.
You may have to say the thing you want many times. The key is to know that this is part of parenting. It doesn’t mean your child is bad or you are bad. It just means you’re two different people. You’re asking them to do something and they don’t want to. That’s OK. Ask again!
It’s deceptively simple. You don’t have to try and convince them or get them to agree with you. Your goal is to communicate your wishes clearly and directly and make your child feel respected and heard in the process.
Your child does not need to agree with or like your boundaries in order for you to set them!
More conversations, less yelling & screaming
The important takeaway here is that to avoid yelling and screaming when there’s an eating disorder we don’t want to avoid difficult conversations. Instead, we want to have more difficult conversations and do them better.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.