Parental attachment impacts eating disorder recovery, and luckily there is a lot you can do to improve it. I’ll outline the steps to improve your parent-child attachment, but first let’s review attachment theory. Attachment theory is a well-established and deeply-researched psychological concept. All children develop an attachment style with their parents. There are two main styles of attachment: secure and insecure.
We all wish that everyone had a secure attachment, but it’s actually not as common as you might think. Just over half of the population (~56%) have secure attachment. A child who is securely attached feels they can rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they seek their caregiver’s attention and are soothed by their caregiver.
There are three types of insecure attachment styles:
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment (~20% of people): a child who is anxious-ambivalent feels insecure about their caregiver. When emotionally dysregulated, they will seek attention and soothing by doing things like whining, yelling, crying, and being rude. However, the caregiver is typically unable to soothe the child.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment (~23% of people): a child who has anxious-avoidant attachment does not seek their caregiver out when they are upset. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they tend to go inward and avoid the caregiver and brush off any attempts to draw them out of their shell.
- Disorganized attachment (~1% of people): a child who has disorganized attachment does not rely on their caregiver for any reliable care. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they may exhibit ambivalent or avoidant attachment patterns, but it is inconsistent, and they are rarely (if ever) soothed by their caregiver.
Use these scripts:
- At the dinner table when behavior is getting out of control
- When you need to set boundaries – fast!
- After something happened so you can calmly review the triggers and events
What is the risk of insecure parental attachment?
Children are dependent on their parents for emotional support, comfort and availability, especially during stressful situations, transitions, and change. Securely attached children learn that their parents are available, understanding, and responsive to their emotional and physical needs. As a result of this caregiving, they will feel competent and valuable as people. This core belief usually lasts for life and leads to better mental and physical health.
That’s great for them! But the other half of humans are insecurely attached to their parents and often feel incompetent and unlovable. They struggle to build secure emotional bonds with others. This is because the way we attach to our parents shapes how we attach to others. Parental attachment becomes the blueprint of how worthy we feel of love and what we believe we deserve from partners and friends in the future. Keep reading though, because we can build more secure attachment with our kids!
Attachment theory and eating disorders
The majority of people treated for eating disorders report they have insecure attachment with their parents. Insecure attachment is nobody’s fault. Notably, researchers recognize that parents who have insecurely attached children likely had insecure attachment with their own parents and also have a history of unresolved trauma that impairs their ability to securely attach with their child. It’s not your fault if your child is insecurely attached!
Studies have found that children with insecure parental attachment have:
- Poor self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth
- Low identity differentiation
- Poor emotional regulation
- Dissatisfied with body and self
- Fear of gaining weight
- Impaired recognition of hunger and satiety
- Higher rates of perfectionism
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Difficulty getting along with others and feeling connected
- Substance dependency
All of these are also linked with eating disorders, which is likely the reason many people with eating disorders also have insecure parental attachment. That said, not everyone with insecure parental attachment develops an eating disorder, and not everyone with an eating disorder has insecure parental attachment. Eating disorders always involve a complicated web of causes, and cannot be attributed to a single cause.
What can parents do to build a secure attachment?
Luckily, parents can improve their parent-child attachment. It takes effort and you may need professional support. But working on this may be the most efficient way to help your child recover from an eating disorder. Attachment can’t be forced, but parents have a lot of leverage when it comes to improving attachment. Because at the end of the day, children want a secure attachment. Even full-grown adult children still look up to their parents and crave their love and affection.
1. Change your mindset
If your child is insecurely attached to you, there’s a good chance there’s a lot of anxiety, opposition, and defiance in your household. Maybe there’s yelling and arguing. Or perhaps your child just stonewalls you, retreating behind their bedroom door and refusing to interact. These behaviors are hurtful to parents, and it’s easy to feel hopeless and think there is nothing you can do to make things better. But these are just symptoms of the attachment relationship. Things can improve! The first step is to adopt two key mindsets.
First, the growth mindset says that you can learn and grow. You are never stuck, and things are never hopeless. While it may not be easy, you have the power to change your own behavior. And what we know about children (even adult ones) is that when parents change, kids change. That’s just how we’re wired.
Second, you need a mindset of unconditional positive regard for your child. This can be hard if your child has been beastly towards you. But it is essential that you assume your child is doing their very best and means well. If you can’t find a way to adopt this mindset, please seek support from a therapist or coach. It’s an indication that you likely have unresolved trauma and/or insecure attachment with your parents. You’ll need to resolve that in order to build a secure relationship with your child.
2. Learn how to co-regulate
Your kid’s emotional regulation system is wired in direct response to how you co-regulate with them. Our kids automatically co-regulate with us, so it’s not a matter of starting to do it, but rather being intentional about how you do it. Your ability to stay emotionally regulated, calm and present when your child is upset is how your child learns to regulate their nervous system. Emotional regulation is an essential part of eating disorder treatment, so working on this with your child is taking direct action that will make a difference in their recovery.
When you improve your own ability to self-regulate, you will improve your child’s ability to self-regulate (check out this course for help). This is easier said than done, but you can learn self-regulation techniques. And when you do this, you’ll naturally co-regulate your child’s emotions. Then everyone can calm down and feel better!
This is a practice that takes time. Mindfulness, therapy, and coaching all help to build your emotional regulation skills. You can also get specialized help in learning how to co-regulate with your child when they are feeling anxious and upset during eating disorder recovery.
3. Do things together
Find ways to be physically in the same room as your child. I know this can seem impossible, but it is a requirement of building a more secure attachment. Unless you don’t live together, find ways to be together every day. A great way to do this is family meals, which are an essential part of eating disorder treatment.
Next, find ways to connect with your child over shared interests. It’s OK if it seems like you have absolutely nothing in common right now. You can develop new interests or reframe your kids’ interests so that they become more compelling for you.
Start by picking something your child cares about. For example, if your child is passionate about a sport, you could ask them to tell you about it. Let them be the authority and show you their passion and excitement. Resist the urge to be an expert. Give them the floor! Admire your child’s knowledge, passion, and ability to teach you about something that matters to them. This will help them feel valuable and worthy of your love and attention.
If things go well, plan outings to watch the sport live. Or just plan dates to watch it at home together on TV. The main point is that you are going to show up and participate in your child’s interests. Over time, you will gradually build your connection and attachment.
4. Validate feelings
When kids are upset, most of us want to quickly soothe them. We say things like:
- You’re OK!
- Don’t cry!
- But you liked it last week!
- Stop that right now!
- I can’t believe you would say that to me!
These responses make sense, but it leads kids to shut down their emotional expressions. It can feel invalidating, and we may even be accused of gaslighting. This breaks trust and damages attachment.
To build parental attachment with your child who has an eating disorder, you need to be responsive, not reactive to their emotional bids for connection. When your child reaches out to you with any form of emotional communication, rather than shutting them down or trying to make the feelings go away, acknowledge their feelings.
Let their feelings exist without trying to change them. Work on understanding the breadth and depth of the feelings. Talk about the experience. Don’t give advice right now. Listen more than you speak. Just stay in the moment, with the feelings in real-time. Trust that your child will get through these feelings safely.
One important note: validating feelings means you don’t argue with or try to convince your child to feel something other than what they are feeling.
Your child’s big feelings, even horrible ones, should not be repressed, but felt in the safety of your love and acceptance. Once you accept and even welcome your child’s feelings, they will begin to trust that you can handle them. This will build your parental attachment, support eating disorder recovery and make parenting a lot easier for you.
Parenting a child who has an eating disorder isn’t easy, but you’re the right person for the job! You can help by practicing these techniques and building a more secure attachment.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, 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.