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How to talk to your child about their eating disorder

How to talk about eating disorders

Kylie and her daughter Brooke are locking horns. “I just don’t understand why we can’t have a calm, rational discussion about Brooke’s eating disorder,” says Kylie. “Normally we can talk about anything, but when it comes to the eating disorder, Brooke is so reactive and completely closed off to me. I have no idea how to help her anymore.”

I completely understand. Talking about eating disorders is incredibly hard, but also so important. And the good news is that every parent can learn some new skills that will improve these difficult conversations. You’ve got this!

Why is it important to talk about eating disorders?

It’s important to talk about eating disorders because they typically don’t get better on their own. And parental intervention can make a significant difference in treatment outcomes. That said, talking about eating disorders is hard and requires parents to learn new conversational skills. This is high-stakes communication, and while you may be great at talking about tons of other things, it helps to get some additional insight and training for conversations about eating disorders.

Parent Scripts For Eating Disorder Recovery

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 are the risks of talking about eating disorders?

There are risks when talking about eating disorders. Well-meaning and deeply loving parents, teachers, doctors, and coaches can easily make mistakes. When a child has an eating disorder, they are hypersensitive to comments about weight and food. This is why talking directly about food and weight can be especially tricky during an active eating disorder. That doesn’t mean avoiding the conversations, just trying a different approach.

Remember that eating disorders are mental illnesses. They aren’t a choice, and they aren’t something your child can just “decide” to stop doing based on your good reasoning. Intense and emotionally distressing arguments about eating disorders can actually increase their power, so it’s important for parents to learn new communication skills to avoid reinforcing eating disorders.

What typically happens when we talk about eating disorders?

The most common outcome of an attempt to talk about eating disorders is defensive communication. Basically, both the child and the parent get stuck in defending their own position, demanding that the other person give in to their will. This will keep everyone stuck in the cycle of an eating disorder.

A child’s deepest wish is to be truly seen, understood, and nurtured by their parents. When they fight and argue, it means they don’t feel understood. The solution is not to double-down on your argument, but to open up to your child’s true needs.

Listening to your child talk about their eating disorder will be hard, but it’s best not to shut them down when you feel uncomfortable. Rather than getting into defensive communication with your child, practice non-defensive communication while still holding boundaries about treatment and recovery.

Why can’t I talk to my child about their eating disorder?

Talking about eating disorders is really hard. You’re not alone if it feels impossible sometimes. The good news is that you can learn to have more effective conversations with your child. Don’t blame yourself if it hasn’t been going well. It’s not your fault, but at the same time if you want to change the pattern of defensive and unproductive communication, you can learn new communication skills that will help.  

What is defensive communication?

Defensive communication is what happens when you’re facing off like opposing sides of a football team. Each of you takes your position and pushes, blocks, and tackles the other side’s position to try and win the game. 

This is the communication style we typically see modeled on TV shows and movies, and usually the “winner” is the person who presents the strongest argument. But this approach is actually counter-productive in most interpersonal relationships. When conversations are based on winning and losing, nobody wins.

Signs that you’re stuck in defensive communication patterns

Here are the signs that you and your child are stuck in a defensive communication pattern:

  1. It seems impossible to have a rational conversation with your child
  2. Talking to your child usually results in someone getting mad, screaming, crying, and/or stonewalling
  3. Your child accuses you of dominating and not understanding their needs
  4. Your child stops talking to you altogether
  5. Conversations quickly turn to contempt and blaming

Let’s take a deeper dive into how we can practice non-defensive communication with our kids.

1. Recognize that your child has an opinion (and it’s not the same as yours)

Defensive communication begins with assuming that you’re on opposing sides, and that your side/argument deserves to win. But this is a non-starter for talking about eating disorders because it puts your child’s dignity and agency at risk. And dignity and agency are at the heart of eating disorder recovery.

The key to non-defensive communication is taking the fight out of the conversation. Instead of lining up against each other and pushing your opposing beliefs, sit down next to your child and consider their opinion. Your child has the right to their own beliefs. Counterintuitively, we can only motivate our kids to change their opinions when they believe we respect their opinions.

2. Take a deep breath and acknowledge your desire to push back

You’ll feel compelled to get into the defensive position and start pushing your beliefs. Take a deep breath. If you react without respecting your child’s opinion, you will remain stuck in defensive communication.

Take a breath. On the in-breath say to yourself: this is hard. On the out-breath say to yourself: I can handle this.

This is a mindfulness technique in which we acknowledge the difficulty of our situation and send ourselves compassion in the moment. Repeat this breathing technique throughout the conversation to stay present and aware.


3. Invite them to talk

It’s natural to want to shut down a person who seems to be holding onto their eating disorder. But this can backfire because it destroys dignity and agency.

The most powerful way to defuse tense conversations is to get curious about your child’s position. Give them the floor so that you can hear what they are actually saying. This has the added benefit of letting them hear themselves. Strange as it may seem, sometimes the best way to motivate your child to change is to allow them to hear their own opinions out loud in a calm conversation with you.

For example, if your child is refusing to do something, you can say “what does not doing this mean to you?”

If a child is yelling, you can say “I can hear how angry you are. I want to understand what’s going on for you right now.”

4. Listen with compassion and patience

Most of us spend the time while the other person is speaking coming up with our response to their position. This is what we do when we believe we’re more reasonable and rational than the other person. We think if we just say the right thing in the right way, we’ll win.

But this is not the way to resolve difficult conversations, particularly when it comes to eating disorders. Instead, listen to your child with compassion and patience. Hear what they are trying to tell you. Practice not thinking about your response when they’re talking. Instead, focus entirely on understanding what they’re trying to communicate.

5. Validate their feelings

When we accept a child’s feelings as valid and valuable, we give them the gift of dignity and agency. These are essential ingredients to motivating change. Here are some things to say to validate your child’s feelings:

  • I hear you
  • I get it. Let’s talk about this some more
  • It sounds like [recap their feelings]
  • Let me see if I understand. What you’re saying is [recap their feelings]
  • I can understand why this feels unfair
  • It makes sense that you’re feeling this way
  • That sounds hard. I’m sorry
  • I’m sorry I said that to you. It sounds like it made you feel [recap their feelings]
  • It sounds like when I did that it made you feel [recap their feelings]

Parent Scripts For Eating Disorder Recovery

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

6. Set a boundary

Once you have listened well and validated your child’s feelings, you may need to set a boundary or make a request. Here’s an example of a boundary when a parent needs to feed a child who doesn’t want to eat in eating disorder recovery:

  1. Your child threw a tantrum because you asked them to finish their meal.
  2. You listened and understand that your child feels like you are trying to dominate and control them.
  3. You validated your child’s feelings of indignation and unfairness because you’re asking them to do something they don’t want to do.
  4. You say “OK, well I will pay attention to this, and I’d like you to keep talking to me about it. For now, I’d like you to please finish your meal.”

⭐ Notice: you’re still asking them to eat the food. But you’re also respecting your child’s autonomy by validating that they have feelings and opinions that are different from yours.

We are more productive and motivating when we listen non-defensively and validate our kids’ feelings. When we practice non-defensive communication while parenting a child with an eating disorder, we’re more likely to support recovery and increase the chances of our children maintaining close, healthy bonds to us for life.

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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