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Emotion coaching when your child has an eating disorder

Emotion coaching when your child has an eating disorder

Emotion coaching is a 5-step method developed for parents by John Gottman, PhD that can be applied to eating disorder recovery. The emotion coaching method builds emotional intelligence and creates positive, long-lasting effects for children, from toddlers to teens and young adults. It’s evidence-based, easy to learn, and regularly used by parents, educators, therapists, and caregivers in many different settings.

When parents learn the emotion coaching method, they identify how best to respond when a child is sad, angry, scared, or emotionally dysregulated and having big emotions. Once parents understand emotion coaching, they recognize that emotions, even the big, scary ones, are opportunities to build connection and emotional resilience. 

Parents also learn that emotion coaching doesn’t let the child “off the hook” when they have big emotions, but rather that the child gets to have big emotions, and the parent also gets to set clear, consistent limits on behavior.

The five steps of emotion coaching are: 

  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions
  2. Recognize your child’s expression of emotions as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
  4. Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
  5. Set limits and problem-solve
emotional regulation

Emotional literacy is critical in eating disorder recovery

Often eating disorder behaviors are a way for a person to cope with difficult and uncomfortable emotions. Thus, eating disorder recovery necessarily involves learning how to feel big and uncomfortable emotions without using eating disorder behaviors. 

This is why parental emotion coaching is so helpful for recovery. You are spending far more time with your child and seeing a greater range of emotions than their therapist. Therefore, if you can help your child learn to tolerate and process difficult emotions, you can help them recover from their eating disorder

But tolerating and processing emotions is not something that most of us do naturally. In fact, many parents do the exact opposite. For many parents, when a child has uncomfortable emotions, the goal is to settle the emotions and move on as quickly as possible. 

Here are the three most common techniques parents use to settle emotions quickly:

  • Accommodating: Your child is afraid of heights, so you avoid heights
  • Authoritarian: Your child gets angry when you ask them to take out the trash, and you yell back that they are ungrateful and need just to do the job without complaint
  • Reassurance/Facts: Your child doesn’t want to do something, so you provide them with facts and reassurance that it’s a good thing to do and that everything will be OK

These are just three ways that parents try to avoid emotions. Most parents who do this believe they are making the only rational choice. They believe that the rational way to handle emotions is to settle and/or avoid them. However, we know that the opposite is true. Repressed and avoided emotions tend to get bigger and more disruptive over time, not smaller. 

That’s why emotional regulation is a core element of eating disorder recovery. To recover from an eating disorder, your child must cope with big and disruptive emotions without their eating disorder behaviors. The only way to do this is to build emotional resilience, which can be achieved with emotion coaching. 

Emotion coaching when parenting a child with an eating disorder

Parents can support recovery by working with their kids’ emotions rather than denying, avoiding, or accommodating them.

1. Be aware of your child’s emotions

The first step in providing emotion coaching for a child who has an eating disorder is to recognize when your child is having emotions. This may seem obvious, but it is both essential and easy to miss. 

You need to tune into your child’s emotional state to do this. Consider these questions: 

  1. Do you know when your child is angry, sad, scared, or feeling another emotion?
  2. If so, how do you know? What are the signs of the different emotions your child feels? (hint: don’t focus on words alone. Emotional expression is much deeper than language, so look for physical signs like eyes, facial expression, posture, vocal tone, gestures, etc.)
  3. Do you understand that often there is a presenting emotion (e.g., anger, stubbornness) that is covering a primary emotion like fear, worry, and shame?

It helps to build your emotional literacy, or ability to recognize and label emotions. There are several tools to help identify feelings: 

Print out one of these tools and use it to help you recognize your child’s different emotional states. Look for opportunities to use more emotional language with your child. Show your child how often we have more than one emotion at the same time. For example, it’s normal to feel both nervous and excited at the same time. We may also have a presenting feeling like anger that’s hiding a core feeling like sadness. 

2. Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching 

Most parents become alarmed and maybe defensive when a child has big emotions. But emotions are a perfectly natural and normal part of being human. There are a few different theories, but a common one developed by Paul Ekman, suggests we have six basic emotions. They are: 

  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise 
  • Disgust

If you consider that there is also a state of neutral emotion, it’s safe to assume that most humans spend less time being happy than they do the many other emotions. Having a child who is not always happy is not a problem: it’s normal.

Uncomfortable emotions like sadness and anger are natural and normal. And your child needs you most when they are sad, angry, afraid, or experiencing other “negative” emotions. It’s not that your child needs to stop having the emotion. It’s that they need to have it safely, ideally with you until they learn to handle it by themselves without their eating disorder behaviors.

When your child has big emotions in your presence, it’s best if you acknowledge the emotions and see them as an opportunity to build your connection with your child. Don’t push the feelings away or avoid them, but rather to step into your role as an emotional caregiver and soothe your child’s emotions.

Soothing does not occur when you accommodate, make demands, bribe, or convince your child not to have their emotions. It takes place when you acknowledge their feelings and respond to them. Soothing can be both verbal and physical. For example, you can begin with labeling the feelings, but you can also start by reaching out to them, hugging them, and giving them gentle eye contact to let them know you are there with them in their pain.

When parents soothe their kids’ emotions, kids learn over time to soothe themselves. And this is the true growth opportunity of emotion coaching and why it’s so important in eating disorder recovery. When you coach your child, they learn to do it for themselves.

3. Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings 

Emotion coaching is a highly attuned, challenging task. Parents who want to emotion coach their kids through eating disorder recovery need to practice listening and validating. Here are some tips for this: 

Listening

  • Make sure you are listening to understand, not listening to respond.
  • Relax your desire to give solutions or convince your child of anything.
  • Breathe deeply and calmly while you listen to your child. 
  • Remain emotionally regulated.
  • Mindfully “listen” to your child’s body language, not just their words.

Validating

  • Mirror what your child said by repeating a few of their words or summarizing what you heard without judging, editorializing, problem-solving, or debating the “facts.” Say things like “It sounds like …” and “Let me know if I’m understanding how you feel, you’re …”
  • Say things like “I get it” and “that makes sense.”
  • Don’t discount feelings, tell them how they should feel, use logic, or try to fix anything.
  • Attend to your body language: have soft eyes, a relaxed but firm posture, and an engaged and open facial expression.
  • Avoid “why” questions, which will put your child on the defensive. 

Read more about validating a child with an eating disorder

You need to validate your child’s emotions, not their behaviors. There’s a big difference. For example, you don’t need to say, “I can understand why you didn’t eat today.” Instead, say, “It sounds like you felt overwhelmed by everything you had to do today (and didn’t eat).”

4. Help your child learn to label their emotions with words 

Consistently work with your child to label their emotions with words. This powerful way to integrate the mind is essential to mental health. Use the feelings tools from earlier and keep steering conversations with your child towards feelings. 

You can ask questions like: 

  • Tell me more
  • What was/is that like for you?
  • What did that make you think? 
  • How did/does that make you feel? 
  • How did/does that affect you? 
  • What did/does that mean to you?

When your child gives you an answer, try to pick out the feeling words or add some of your own to make sure the conversation is emotion-focused.

Most of us want to focus on “facts” and details. But with emotion coaching, you’re working to help your child identify their feelings, which will help them deal with distress without their eating disorder behaviors in the long term.

5. Set limits and problem solve 

Emotion coaching is not permissive. In other words, while you are validating and accepting all of your child’s emotions, that does not mean that all behaviors are acceptable. 

For example, your child with an eating disorder might prefer to eat alone in their room. You can validate that they prefer to do that, but in your home, you insist on eating at the table as a family. Just because your child has feelings does not mean feelings should dictate behavior. This is very important when a child is dealing with dangerous behaviors like restricting, binge eating, and purging.

You can set clear boundaries and expectations that may include things like: 

  • Family meals
  • Not going in the bathroom after eating
  • Therapy appointments
  • No swearing at people or calling people names
  • Not hitting things or people

When things get hard, you can validate the feelings for why your child doesn’t want to or can’t meet the boundary but still uphold the boundary you have set. This is what parents learn to do in the highly effective and evidence-based SPACE Training

If your child has expressed their emotions and feels validated, you may move into problem-solving. But be careful about problem-solving, as most adolescents and young adults do not actually want you to problem-solve. Most of the time they want to express themselves and then solve their problems by themselves. 

Surprisingly, the more room you give your adolescent/young adult to solve their own problems, the more likely they will seek your advice. So hold back unless it’s specifically requested.

If you are sure that your child really wants you to problem-solve with them, here are the steps: 

  1. Identify goals
    • What is the problem we are trying to fix? 
  1. Think of possible solutions 
    • Brainstorm – no idea is too silly or stupid to consider 
    • Write them all down 
    • Remind your adolescent/young adult of past success and how he/she handled it 
  1. Evaluate proposed solutions based on family values 
    • Is the solution fair? 
    • Will it work? 
    • Is it safe? 
    • How am I likely to feel? 
    • How will other people feel? 
  1. Help your adolescent/young adult choose a solution if they want help doing so.

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 eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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