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Habits of a happy family with an eating disorder

Habits of a happy family with an eating disorder

Cara was feeling anything but happy when she called me. “It just feels like no matter what we do, everything is hard and dark,” she said. “I feel like this eating disorder has sucked the joy out of my family, and I want it back!” I get it. An eating disorder can put a damper on even the happiest families. But the good news is that regardless of what challenges they face, happy families share some common habits. And Cara’s family can pursue happiness even as they face an eating disorder. Here are the habits parents can work on to build a happy family during eating disorder recovery:


Happy families have deep and meaningful connections with each other and as an integrated group. There is a strong sense of belonging and identity. Each member of a happy family feels as if they are a part of something important and special. There is a lot of warmth and goodwill, a sense of well-being and mutual respect and regard. Happy families feel as if each person matters and that the family as a whole matters, too. 

If your child has an eating disorder: seek ways to build belonging by creating opportunities and rituals to do things together. Make family togetherness times a non-negotiable part of being in the family, and strive to make them pleasant and uplifting. Parents set the tone! The eating disorder doesn’t have to take center stage all the time. Instead, find ways to center your family’s strengths and enjoy each other.

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

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While happy families are deeply connected, they also value individual differentiation and individuation. This means that each individual is respected and accepted for their unique individuality. Every person is an autonomous being with their own beliefs, thoughts, and actions. And each person takes responsibility for their own emotions and identity. Therefore, nobody is triangulating or putting another member into an ill-fitting role in order to feel better about themselves. 

If your child has an eating disorder: very often we want to change the person with an eating disorder’s beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. However, we must first seek to understand who they are and why the eating disorder showed up. What purpose is it serving for your child? Honor your child’s differentiation and autonomy as an individual who has their own hopes and dreams. Work with them to build a sense of personal identity that is neither trapped in the family system or their eating disorder behaviors. 


Happy families value authentic communication. They are not deceiving or lying to each other regularly because they don’t feel as if they need to lie in order to get along and be accepted as a member of the family. There are no big family secrets that are swept under the rug and never discussed. People aren’t walking on eggshells or ignoring the elephant in the room. Family members don’t pretend that big blowups, tantrums, and problems haven’t happened. They acknowledge them with honesty and humility. Feelings are accepted and validated without guilt, shame, or blame.

If your child has an eating disorder: it’s very possible that you are afraid to talk about things because your child becomes explosive and has big feelings. Maybe when you talk about eating with your child, they throw a tantrum. Learn how to respond to tantrums and emotions without either exploding or collapsing. Show your child that you can tolerate their big, authentic feelings by maintaining your own emotional regulation. Authentic communication requires that your child trusts that you can handle what they say. Doing this takes practice, so get some help recognizing your patterns and learning some new skills.


A happy family offers security to everyone in it. There is a strong belief that each person is loved regardless of what they do or don’t do. There is no physical, verbal, or emotional violence. Parents provide a safe and secure base, including regular family meals as well as expectations and boundaries about eating, chores, bedtime, and acceptable family behavior. Kids can trust that what parents say is well-intentioned and has unconditional love at its core. Parents take responsibility for when things go wrong and repair emotional mismatch, arguments, and other relational ruptures intentionally and with skill. 

If your child has an eating disorder: create a sense of order and structure in the household. If meals have been casual or chaotic, establish regular family meals. Set clear expectations about what you expect your kids to do and hold your boundaries unapologetically while validating kids’ feelings about your boundaries. Hold yourself to the highest standards and avoid physical, verbal, or emotional outbursts or stonewalling. However, if your child gets violent, learn to respond to their outbursts effectively to maintain security for the whole family. Follow up with your child when things go wrong and repair the relationship. 


Happy families know that not everything is equal, but it is fair. Rules and expectations are clearly and non-judgmentally communicated without drama, shame, or fear. They are consistently applied across the family system, not unevenly. Kids don’t wonder what they need to do to be “good” in the family, nor do they feel as if they are “bad” when they make mistakes. Consequences are given strategically, not reactively or out of anger. They are reasonable and fit the mistake. There is not a sense of shame or blame when things go wrong, just an acknowledgement of what is fair moving forward. 

If your child has an eating disorder: sometimes the person with an eating disorder is treated too gently and the other siblings feel things are unfair. Maintain expectations and chores throughout eating disorder recovery. Alternatively, sometimes the person with the eating disorder feels as if they have to do all the recovery work and nobody else in the family is working on themselves. If your child is going to therapy, it’s a good idea (and fair!) if you, the parent, gets therapy or coaching. Family therapy is also a great way to show fairness. An eating disorder is never about just one person. It’s also an interpersonal event that integrates into the family and thus requires a family-wide response.



A happy family realizes that circumstances change all the time. Jobs are lost, breakups happen, kids may announce a gender or sexuality you didn’t see coming. Happy families are able to learn and grow into new situations all the time because they don’t expect happiness to be a steady state of affairs. Relationships change, identities change, and each family member is able to roll with the punches of change. A happy family has a growth mindset, recognizing that life is meant to be experienced, and they are capable of being flexible no matter what happens.

If your child has an eating disorder: many people with eating disorders are stuck in a rigid and perfectionistic mindset. Rather than telling them to relax, start practicing and modeling a growth mindset in your family. Talk about mistakes and try new things. When you make mistakes, talk about them from a perspective of growth and learning (not self-recrimination). Sometimes you can make mistakes on purpose just so you can model this behavior. If you struggle with perfectionism yourself, get some therapy or coaching to expand your own flexibility. 

Your family can be happy even with an eating disorder

Parenting a child with an eating disorder doesn’t have to mean everyone is sad and anxious all the time. Sure, the eating disorder is a condition that you’re going to work on together, but it doesn’t have to define your family. With these habits, you can bring happiness to your family even as you navigate eating disorder recovery. And doing so will benefit everyone. 

Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.

See Our Guide To Parenting A Child With An Eating Disorder

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