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The 3 types of stress and eating disorders

The 3 types of stress and eating disorders

Monique is very worried about her daughter Maya. After a few years of struggling to deal with stress, Maya is now deep into an eating disorder. Monique and her husband Leonard are dedicated to helping her recover, but they are worried that stress is a major ongoing problem. 

“I worry that unless we address her stress, she’s still going to struggle,” says Monique. “Eating disorder treatment is hard, and it seems to me like if we don’t figure out how to reduce her stress, we’re just treading water with her mental health. I just don’t know what to do about it.” 

Maya, 16, has always been a sensitive child. “When she was a toddler, she was really picky about her food and clothing,” says Monique. “So I adjusted her diet and made sure I didn’t buy her any clothes with tags. She seemed to do OK for years, but when puberty hit, she started spiraling into stress. Now it seems like she just can’t handle life, and it’s not as simple as it was when she was little and I could control everything and reduce the stressors.” 

Everything that Monique says makes sense. And she’s right: without addressing Maya’s struggles with stress, it will be hard to achieve eating disorder recovery and, ultimately, mental health. 

Why so stressed?

To get started, I asked Monique some questions about what stresses Maya out. Based on her childhood experiences, it sounds like Maya is a highly sensitive individual. This means that she is naturally more sensitive to stressors. But what exactly is creating so much stress for Maya right now?

I started by defining the three types of stress and how they appear when a person has an eating disorder. The three types of stress are:

1. Healthy stress

Not all stress is bad! We need stress to learn and grow. Without stress, we would never achieve maturity. This stress is healthy and adaptive, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable. In fact, healthy stress can trigger all the troubling signs of emotional dysregulation, including yelling, crying, and avoiding tasks that seem impossible. However, when a person faces their healthy stress with courage, their struggles build emotional resilience and maturity. A person cannot mature without healthy stress! 

It’s not really the type or size of the stress that you experience but your ability to cope with the stress that defines whether stress is helpful or toxic. 

Some forms of healthy stress that your child must navigate if they have an eating disorder include:

  • Eating enough food
  • Eating regularly throughout the day
  • Body changes (e.g. weight gain)
  • Going to therapy, medical, and nutrition appointments
  • Disagreeing with parents and siblings
  • Being assertive about needs and boundaries
  • Going to school
  • Completing difficult school tests and assignments 
  • Studying
  • Having reasonable expectations of extra curricular activities
  • Making new friends and socializing
  • Having social media limits
  • Getting to bed at a healthy time each night

🔑 The key if your child is experiencing healthy stress is to validate their experience (e.g. “this is hard”) while also expressing confidence in their ability to handle it (e.g. “I know you can handle this.”). Seek ways to support your child through healthy stress daily, and get coaching and support if this is a struggle for you.

2. Traumatic stress

This sort of stress is related to a specific event or action. It overwhelms a person’s coping resources and may become stuck if not processed. Common forms of traumatic stress include:

  • Serious accident 
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Exposure to traumatic events at home, including domestic violence
  • Serious health problems, such as heart surgery, cancer, etc.
  • Having a sibling or parent with a chronic illness (physical or mental)
  • The death of someone close, such as a parent or sibling
  • Divorce
  • Vomiting, choking, and painful gastrointestinal episodes

The interesting thing about traumatic stress is that it doesn’t impact everyone equally. Two people can face the same traumatic event, and one may develop traumatic stress symptoms while the other may not. The difference between ongoing symptoms after traumatic stress is whether the event is processed healthily. Some people can do this by themselves, but many others need a lot of emotional support to process a traumatic event. 

For example, many kids get through their parents’ divorce without any PTSD, while others need some help processing their feelings about the divorce and its impact on the family.

🔑 If your child is experiencing traumatic stress, the key is to get them professional support to process their trauma. A therapist specializing in PTSD will support your child in facing their fear and overcoming the long-term impacts of traumatic stress. You can also learn skills to respond to your child’s PTSD appropriately.

3. Chronic stress

Chronic stress builds over time. A person experiencing chronic stress often feels stuck and unable to make changes to improve their life. This sort of stress is often entrenched and hard to break out of, but parents can help. According to Yale Medicine, some symptoms of chronic stress include: 

  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia or sleepiness
  • A change in social behavior, such as staying in often
  • Low energy
  • Unfocused or cloudy thinking
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Change in emotional responses to others
  • Emotional withdrawal

Common stressors to be aware of in your child’s life include:

  • Difficult family relationships, especially with parents and siblings
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of family structure and support
  • A heavy workload at school 
  • Pressure to achieve certain grades and achievements
  • Intense sports activities/expectations
  • Pressure to perform at very high levels at school or in extracurricular activities
  • Bullying
  • Overuse of social media 

Chronic stress needs to be addressed to recover from an eating disorder. Your child’s lifestyle must change to reduce chronic stress and build experiences of healthy stress. 

🔑 There are two keys if your child is experiencing chronic stress. The first is to reduce unnecessary stressors in your child’s life. This can begin by looking at their schedule and removing non-essential activities and pressure to perform. The second is to turn the necessary stressors of life (e.g. eating, going to school) into healthy stress. With the right approach, you can help your child gradually turn chronic stress about eating and other stressors into healthy stress. 

Maya’s stress and eating disorder

I reviewed Maya’s stress with Monique using a worksheet I created. Together, we identified three primary issues that need to be addressed right away: 

Eating Stress (chronic)

Maya feels tremendous stress about eating. She is worried about food all day, and it is hard for Monique to calm Maya enough to get the nutrition she needs to recover. 

🔑  This is chronic stress that can be turned into healthy stress. In combination with Maya’s eating disorder treatment team, Monique can support Maya and help her face the stress of eating with courage and determination. Over time, she will learn to face eating and mealtimes as healthy stress. While eating may continue to be challenging for her, she can transform it from chronic stress to healthy stress. 

Sibling Stress (chronic/traumatic)

Maya and her brother Victor have a negative relationship. Victor is aggressive with Maya and frequently criticizes her. Sometimes he even gets physically violent and pushes or pinches her. 

🔑  This is chronic stress that needs to be eliminated. Monique and Leonard need to immediately seek therapy for Victor and set firm boundaries around how he treats his sister. Monique and Leonard must intervene whenever they observe Victor being aggressive, critical, and violent with Maya. There should be a zero-tolerance policy for these behaviors in the household. Additionally, they should have Maya see a trauma specialist who can determine how best to address any trauma resulting from her brother’s treatment.

Performance Stress (chronic)

Maya feels overloaded with homework and tests. She has a lifelong dream of attending an Ivy League university. The pressure to perform has become overwhelming, and Maya spends hours trying to motivate herself to do homework and study. Her grades have been steadily slipping, and she often stays up until 2 a.m. trying to complete her work.

🔑  This chronic stress needs to be adjusted. While academic goals can be a healthy form of stress, it is clear that they have crossed the boundary and become chronic stress. Maya needs support from her therapist to re-evaluate her goals and get healthy study habits and boundaries in place. Monique and Leonard should meet with Maya’s school counselor to determine reasonable expectations and help Maya manage her academic goals. 

Moving forward

Understanding Maya’s stress helps Monique and Leonard see how stress affects Maya and how they can help her start having less toxic stress in her life. Knowing the three types of stress affecting eating disorder recovery has given them the confidence to start making changes at home and in Maya’s treatment program. 

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.

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Mental health checklist for eating disorder recovery (free download)

Mental health checklist for eating disorder recovery

If your child has an eating disorder, recovery means more than simply gaining weight and/or stopping eating disorder behaviors; it means becoming mentally healthy. Eating disorders are frequently misunderstood, and people don’t always realize that mental health, not just eating disorder recovery, is the goal. 

That’s why I’ve put together a mental health checklist to help you set expectations and goals as your child recovers from their eating disorder. This mental health checklist is especially important if your child is returning to college or independent living after undergoing recovery in your home and/or a treatment facility.

Eating disorders are often layered on top of poor mental health and other mental disorders, so if parents don’t pay attention to mental health overall, they risk having a boomerang effect of having a child leave and return to treatment. While you can’t control their recovery, you can do your best to set your child up for success. Nobody wants your child to feel they are ready to return to independent living or go to college only to discover that they are not yet equipped to care for themselves, so the more you can help them build the skills they need to be mentally healthy, the better. A mental health checklist to be used during and after eating disorder recovery can help.

How to measure mental health

Mental health sometimes feels arbitrary. But in fact, we can measure mental health based on the behaviors that lead to and indicate mental health. It’s just like eating disorders. Except for medically-underweight anorexia, eating disorders don’t often have measurable physical symptoms. Instead, they are diagnosed based on the behaviors observed. 

For example, eating disorders are measured by how often a person eats, how much they eat, and how they feel about eating. Similarly, mental health can be measured by how well a person takes care of themselves and how they feel about themselves.

In addition to your child’s recovery process, they should be learning to take care of their physical health, which includes at a minimum: 

  • Getting adequate food and water
  • Moving their body appropriately
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Basic hygiene

Beyond basic physical healthcare, your child should also take care of their emotional health, which includes at a minimum: 

  • Connecting with others
  • Managing social media use
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Getting outdoors
  • Asking for help
  • Taking breaks
  • Having self-compassion

Physical self-care after an eating disorder

Even if your child is cleared of an active eating disorder diagnosis, they are still at risk of mental illness. They will need to care for their bodies and minds intentionally for life. This is important for every person, but particularly for someone who has/had an eating disorder. Here are the basic physical care steps that your child should take to improve mental health. 

Getting adequate food and water

All bodies need enough food and water to function. And a lack of food and water has a significant impact on both mental and physical health. When someone has/had an eating disorder, it’s an indication that they may need to be more vigilant than others about caring for this most basic element of self-care. As your child transitions to living independently from you, they should demonstrate an ability to feed themselves adequate quantities of food every 3-4 hours and drink at least 6-8 glasses of water daily. 

Moving their body appropriately

Our bodies are made to move. Regular movement is essential to both physical and mental health. The tricky part is that many people who have eating disorders incorporate excessive exercise and/or are at risk of serious health complications if they exercise. However, as your child recovers from their eating disorder, they should work in regular movement to maintain health. This can be functional like having a walking commute to work or school, going for a short walk each day, doing a brief home exercise routine, or joining a gym or attending fitness classes. Your child should demonstrate an ability to move their body regularly, not too much and not too little.

Getting enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is a cornerstone of mental health. Your child needs 8-9 hours of sleep per night. People with eating disorders and other behavioral and mental health problems often experience sleep loss. Your child may have insomnia or struggle to settle down and get to sleep. While it’s easy to dismiss sleep as unimportant, it is as important as food, water, and movement to the human body and mental health. Sleep loss is no joke for anyone, but it is particularly risky for someone who has been diagnosed with a mental disorder like an eating disorder. Losing sleep is a major risk for someone with a history of mental disorders. Therefore, your child should demonstrate an ability to get adequate sleep each night and wake up at an appropriate hour in the morning. 

Basic hygiene

While basic hygiene may seem like a given, it can be a major struggle for someone with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, or other mental disorder. On the one hand, if your child has OCD, they may lead towards overdoing hygiene. Some people will wash and clean themselves excessively. On the other hand, someone who is depressed or has ADHD may feel unable to clean themselves adequately. Either way, taking care of basic hygiene is essential to mental health. Like exercise, you’ll need to measure whether your child’s challenge is doing too much or too little and work from there. Set some basic expectations, like flossing and brushing teeth twice daily. Bathing can vary per person, but discuss the maximum number of days between showers and/or the maximum number of showers per day. Your child should demonstrate an ability to take care of their basic hygiene. 

Emotional self-care after an eating disorder

An eating disorder is a mental illness. This means that while physical symptoms and/or behaviors are used to diagnose an eating disorder, it is emotional and mental in nature. This means that your child needs to care for their emotional health. This is important for everyone, but particularly for someone who has/had an eating disorder. Here are the basic emotional self-care steps that your child should take to maintain their mental health. 

Connecting with others

Human connection is as important as food, water, sleep, and movement. It is a sign of mental health to reach out to other people. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or intense. Still, you should feel confident that your child has some human connection daily. It might be a phone call to a loved one, but it could also be as simple as going in person to get groceries or food and speaking to someone while getting it instead of ordering contactless delivery. 

Managing social media use

Social media can be a major impediment to mental health for numerous reasons. It is particularly dangerous for people who have/had eating disorders due to the algorithmic preference for very thin people who promote “healthy lifestyles” that include eating disorder behaviors and beliefs. While zero social media use might be ideal for mental health, it’s not realistic or necessary for most people. Your child should demonstrate that they can set limits on their usage. 

Practicing mindfulness

One of the symptoms of an eating disorder is a disconnection between the mind and the body. It’s as if the brain-body connection is severed. To recover and maintain mental health, your child needs to practice a mindful connection between the brain and body. Your child should have a daily mindfulness practice that actively connects the brain and body.

Getting outdoors

Studies have shown that being in nature, even for a few minutes daily, has numerous physical benefits, including less pain and lower diastolic blood pressure. It improves mood and reduces the risk of mental illness. Support your child in getting outdoors for at least a few minutes daily. They can combine this with either exercise or mindfulness, or both. They should take a few moments to feel the air in their lungs and look at the sky, a tree, or anything natural and not human-made.

Asking for help

There is a tendency when someone has a mental disorder like an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, etc., to self-isolate. They reach out less to people who care about them and say less about how they are feeling. You want to support your child in reaching out for help when they feel sad, scared, or angry. Nobody can take their feelings away, but sharing our feelings with other people is soothing and improves mental health. 

Taking breaks

The brain-body disconnection common in eating disorders often translates to ignoring signs of mental or physical fatigue. A mentally healthy person recognizes when they need a break and takes breaks to improve their health and performance. Help your child learn to take breaks when they are overwhelmed or having physical or mental symptoms of fatigue.

Having self-compassion

A mentally healthy person has compassion for themselves. They don’t beat themselves up when they make mistakes and don’t speak cruelly or dismissively to themselves. They know how to soothe themselves when things go wrong and treat themselves as they would a good friend. Help your child learn to speak to themself with self-compassion and love.

Giving your child a mental health checklist for eating disorder recovery

Discussing mental health with your child while they are still recovering from an eating disorder and preparing to leave your daily care will help them build mental health. You can create your own checklist or use the one I created. The checklist I created includes both daily actions and warning signs to keep in mind. You can provide this to your child and talk with them regularly about both elements: are they doing daily self-care, and are there any warning signs to address? This can help you communicate your concern for their mental health, even if your child isn’t living with you.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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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: 


  • 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.


  • 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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Talking to your child with an eating disorder without yelling & screaming

Talking to your child with an eating disorder without yelling & screaming

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.

emotional regulation

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.

3. Listen

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Fear & worry in eating disorder recovery

Fear & worry in eating disorder recovery

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then you should expect to see fear and worry. This is because eating disorders often show up with, and in response to, anxiety. Eating disorder behaviors can be an attempt to cope with anxious feelings and thoughts. And luckily, parents have a significant impact on kids’ anxiety.

But unfortunately, our instinctual responses to our kids’ anxiety can accidentally make it worse over time!

In fact, there are treatment programs in which parents of anxious kids are the only ones who are treated. That’s right: while it’s ideal if your child is also getting treatment for anxiety, it’s not a requirement for them to start feeling (and acting) better. You can do a lot to change the course of their anxiety. Anxiety is highly responsive to relationships. You will either see it grow or decrease depending on how you respond. 

What does anxiety look like in an eating disorder?

Anxiety can be a bit tricky to see without some practice. Many people who develop eating disorders have learned to cloak their anxiety with anger, sadness, fighting, and withdrawal. Here are the top signals of anxiety, fear, and worry when there’s an eating disorder:

  1. Worry about weight
  2. Fear of food
  3. Anger about rules, restriction, and efforts to control eating disorder behaviors
  4. Sadness about perceived failure and disappointing their parents, friends, etc.
  5. Fighting and negotiating about recovery steps and expectations
  6. Withdrawal, shutdown, or a refusal to talk or engage in family activities

Anger, fighting, and sadness are the most distracting versions of anxiety. And parents typically respond to them with confusion and surprise. It seems like you’re asking your child to do something that makes perfect logical sense, so why are they so upset about it? 

The key is to know that they are upset about it because their anxiety has been triggered, and one of the ways anxiety maintains control is to put out distractions from the bigger issue, which is the fact that their anxiety response is over-reactive. 

The solution if your child has a lot of worry and fear, or if they are angry, sad, fighting you, or withdrawing when they have an eating disorder, is to learn how to respond to anxiety better. 

emotional regulation

How to deal with fear and worry in eating disorder recovery

First, let’s set the table. I want you to start talking about worry, fear, and other scary feelings regularly. Have regular conversations with your child about what anxiety is, how it shows up, and how you’re going to respond to it now that you know this. 

NOTE: lots of kids hate the word anxiety. I’m going to use it in this article so you know what I’m talking about, but you may do better if you use more kid-friendly words like worry, fear, stress, anger, etc.

The most important message I’m sharing today is that worry, fear, and other big feelings will show up, and that’s OK, but we’re not going to let them make important decisions about what we do and don’t do.

Demystify anxiety. It follows a predictable pattern. It’s rarely helpful to be surprised by it, try to ignore it or force it to go away. Instead, it’s best to talk about it, recognize it, and even welcome it into your life without letting it control your life.

Never threaten anxiety. Let it exist; just don’t let it run the show.

1. Expect anxiety to show up (it will!)

One of the most confusing things about having a child with an eating disorder is how resistant they can be to recovery. Even if they say they want to recover, it may seem to you as if they are not taking the action they need to recover. 

It’s important to think a bit differently. While it’s true that your child may not be taking the action they need to recover, it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because anxiety keeps showing up and telling them it’s not safe to recover. 

Anxiety’s job is to warn us of danger and keep us from doing things that make us uncomfortable. 

But the only way to heal from an eating disorder is to feel things like fear and worry and do the thing you need to do anyway. 

The only way out is through!

So the first thing you need to do as a parent is to stop being surprised by anxiety. Start to expect it. Expect anxiety to show up every time you put food in front of your child, and lots of other times, too. 

A child who has an eating disorder typically has a hair-trigger response to even small threats. Their amygdala is highly-responsive right now. So you’re going to see anxiety a lot. Don’t be surprised; expect it.

2. Tell your child that it’s OK to feel afraid and worried sometimes (it makes sense!)

Most parents automatically respond to anxiety reactions like worry, fear, and anger by trying to shut it down or ignore it. This makes sense because your own anxiety senses danger and wants to keep you safe. I get it.

But instead, you need to face your own anxiety about your child’s anxiety head-on. Remember: the only way out is through!

When you try to debate, diminish, or ignore anxiety, it gets stronger, digging in deeper and justifying its existence as the savior.

Instead, when you see your child getting anxious, name it. Say something like “oh look, here’s some worry. It makes sense that you get worried sometimes. I get it.” 

You can replace the word “worry” with other words like sad, angry, frustrated, irritated, scared, etc. Try to find the word that makes your child feel seen, heard, and understood. This takes some practice, but you can do it!

This removes the need for the child to justify and defend their anxiety. When you remove the opportunity for debate, you take away an essential part of anxiety escalation. 

3. Remind your child that the path to feeling better is not to avoid fear but to face fear (and do it anyway!)

Once you have acknowledged that anxiety is present in the form of worry, fear, anger, etc., take some time to let your child feel that you believe them when they say they feel however they feel. 

When you sense that they “feel felt,” then you can move on to the next stage. It’s OK if you need to try this a few times. This takes practice and is almost never perfect. That’s OK!

Now you want to remind your child that feeling worried and nervous is perfectly normal, but that we can’t live our lives according to anxiety’s demands. 

Of course, this means that you should have those pre-conversations with your child about what anxiety is, how it shows up, and how you’re going to respond to it now that you know this. 

Your response to anxiety is: worry, fear, and other big feelings will show up, and that’s OK, but we’re not going to let them make important decisions about what we do and don’t do.

4. Believe that your child can learn to tolerate their fear (they can!).

One of the biggest impediments to kids learning to tolerate anxiety is that parents worry it is not possible. Here again, we recognize that your worry as a parent can impact your child’s relationship with worry. 

So come up with a mantra for facing your fears and doing it anyway. The only proven way to reduce anxiety is to train the amygdala and your thoughts to face anxiety and build up the muscles of tolerance and acceptance.

Remember that trying to avoid anxiety will make it get stronger, but facing it and doing the scary thing anyway will build the muscles that are needed to respond to anxiety appropriately. With practice, your child will do this by themself over time. But it’s very hard to do this without help and support at home.

How this looks at the dinner table

Here’s a quick scenario about how worry and fear can show up at the dinner table with an eating disorder. 

Take 1: letting anxiety run the show

  • Child: I can’t eat. I’m full. You can’t make me!
  • Parent: You have to eat! It’s important! You promised! 
  • Child: I already ate enough. You know I can’t handle more. I’ll throw up! 
  • Parent: You have to eat this food. It’s good for you. Just eat it so we can get on with life, will you?
  • Child: You gave me too much! I can tell you added butter and oil – look! It’s just sitting on top. Gross!
  • Parent: No I didn’t! It’s the same thing I make every time. I didn’t change anything!

In this scenario, the parent is accidentally engaging in a debate with anxiety. This gives the anxiety a sense of power and control. And it usually makes the situation worse, not better.

Take 2: standing up to anxiety

  • Child: I can’t eat. I’m full. You can’t make me!
  • Parent: Yeah, you often feel this way at dinner. I get it. 
  • Child: No you don’t! You don’t understand anything!
  • Parent: It seems like you’re really upset.
  • Child: Yes I am! I hate this!
  • Parent: I get it. I really do. But remember that we talked about this, and we’re not letting worry run the show anymore. Let’s put worry aside for dinner tonight and we’ll talk to it some more after we eat if we need to.
  • Child: You’re just trying to control me!
  • Parent: Yeah, I know that’s what your worry says, and I understand that’s how it feels. Like I said, let’s get through dinner and then see what worry has to say to us later. 
  • Child: that’s stupid (they take a bite).

In this scenario, the parent is not fighting with or trying to make the anxiety go away. They’re acknowledging and validating the existence of anxiety and asking the child to do the hard thing even though they feel anxious.

Practice, not perfect

This is a practice, and it takes time for parents to learn a different way of responding to anxiety. If this sounds impossible right now, I get it. But trust the process. It works.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders, and we have thousands and thousands of research papers examining what it is and how it works. There is a lot of data to support this treatment approach to a child with anxiety. 

One of the things we know is that for most parents, their instinctual response to anxiety will accidentally increase a child’s anxiety over time rather than decrease it. But at the same time, when parents learn and practice new skills for responding to anxiety, they will see a decrease in anxious outbursts and behaviors. 

Anxiety is the most treatable mental disorder, and since it underlies and drives so many other disorders, including eating disorders, it makes sense to learn some new skills for responding to anxiety differently. 

Book Recommendation

This book gives an excellent overview of what anxiety is and how parents can respond differently for better results.

Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Reid Wilson & Lynn Lyons

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How emotional regulation can help with an eating disorder (and what you can do)

How to use emotional regulation to help your child who has an eating disorder

A child who has an eating disorder will benefit from emotional regulation skills, and parents can help by learning co-regulation techniques. When we co-regulate with our kids, they learn to do it for themselves. In fact, we are in the best possible position to improve our kids’ capacity for emotional regulation.

Often when we learn a child has an eating disorder all our attention goes to the child’s disordered behaviors. We focus on feeding them and getting them to therapy. This is important, necessary, and makes a lot of sense. 

But when we focus exclusively on behaviors we may miss the cause of the behaviors. And emotional dysregulation and disengagement are often at the heart of eating disorders. This is why emotional regulation is key to lasting recovery.

Parental co-regulation

Children are not born with emotional regulation skills. They learn them through a process called co-regulation.

Parental co-regulation is when a parent’s nervous system regulates the child’s nervous system. With practice, the child gradually learns to regulate their own nervous system without the aid of their parent. This is something we know based on recent developments in neuroscience, which is teaching us how children’s emotional systems develop. 

When there isn’t enough co-regulation in the parent-child relationship, our kids don’t develop a healthy self-regulation system. We often see signs of this through kids’ negative behavior.

Benefits of co-regulation:

  • More balanced and calm state of mind
  • Able to cope with worry and regulate thoughts and emotions
  • Ability to think more clearly and make decisions
  • Increased ability to respond rather than react
  • Process worry, stress, and anxiety in a healthy way
  • Emotional balance
  • Relationship balance
  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness

Adults can learn emotional regulation when they are older, but it is much harder and takes a lot of time and effort. A child/teen, on the other hand, can learn emotional regulation through co-regulation with a parent much faster due to the neurobiology of the emotional regulation system. A parent who co-regulates with their child, especially when there is an eating disorder, can make a huge impact on the child’s lifetime mental health.

emotional regulation

Understanding attunement

Co-regulation begins with parental attunement. This is when a parent tunes into how a child is feeling – the feelings that lie beneath the behavior we’re observing – and responds in a way that will bring the child into an emotionally-regulated state. Attunement is something that we’re designed to do for our children, and it’s something our kids need us to do to build a healthy self-regulation system.

Attunement begins with tuning in to how your child is feeling. Your first trigger that there’s a feeling to pay attention to is that you might notice you are getting irritated or frustrated with them. That’s typically a good sign that your child is having feelings and needs you to tune in and help them regulate their emotional system. 

Once you notice a behavior that bothers you and therefore indicates hard feelings, take a deep, calming breath and look at your child. Think about what they might be feeling, and try to sense it with your body. 

We have a vagus nerve that is automatically attuned to our child’s distress. The vagus nerve winds throughout our brain, face, neck, and trunk. “Gut feelings” are actually the vagus nerve sending feedback to your stomach and intestines. Vagus nerve feedback is powerful and embodied, and it’s one of the best ways we can become attuned to our child’s emotional needs.

Being attuned to your child takes practice, but it’s something you can learn. 

Childhood emotional regulation

Behavior is often seen as something we need to fix or get rid of. But when we shift our thinking to recognize that behavior holds critical clues, we can decode our kids’ emotional state and respond appropriately. Our kids’ negative, annoying, and dangerous behavior, including eating disorder behavior, tells us they need this from us. 

This approach is a critical shift from thinking our kids’ behavior is something that needs to be overcome, fixed, shut down, or controlled. Instead, we want to learn to translate behavior and use co-regulation to help them learn self-regulation. 

Often we get frustrated with our kids’ irritating behaviors. We all wish our kids would self-regulate their emotions better. But emotional regulation is a learned skill, and our own irritation is our signal that we need to tune in and help them with co-regulation. 

No matter how convenient it would be, we don’t improve nervous system regulation with cognitive skill-building. Rather, we improve nervous system self-regulation through co-regulation.

Windows of tolerance

One helpful way to visualize this is to consider our kids as having different emotional “windows.” I created a visual way of seeing these three windows, or emotional states: dysregulated, co-regulated, and disengaged. This illustration is based on materials provided by Mona Delahooke. It interprets the “Window of Tolerance” concept developed by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a leader in neuroscience research particularly as it relates to the parenting relationship. I also integrated concepts from the work of Dr. Stephen Porges.

GJC emotional regulation model

The behaviors and feelings are scientifically validated. However, the information for “eating disorder behaviors” is based on my professional observations, research, and lived experience. Please use this information as guidance, not fact. Every eating disorder is unique.

A child who has an eating disorder will likely have periods of emotional regulation. That is to be expected. However, the eating disorder behaviors are unlikely to be a problem while the child is in a regulated state, which is why I put “N/A” in that column. Eating disorder behaviors are most often triggered by emotional dysregulation and/or disengagement.

Co-regulating with your child through recovery

A child’s eating disorder recovery will go through many stages. The main thing to keep in mind is that when a child increases their emotional regulation, their eating disorder behaviors will almost always decrease. 

This rarely happens all at once, but rather in stages. And the goal is not to achieve a state of constant emotional regulation. Instead, we just want to shift the balance and have more periods of regulation than periods of dysregulation and disengagement. This is normal and healthy human emotional functioning.

I’ve come up with a model: Emotional Stages of Eating Disorder Recovery based on my research, observations, and lived experience. 

Emotional Stages of Eating Disorder Recovery By ginny jones

The key here is that parents can play an integral role in eating disorder recovery by focusing on co-regulating with their child, which will build the child’s ability to self-regulate and therefore not seek eating disorder behaviors as a coping mechanism.

How to co-regulate with your child

So how does a parent co-regulate with a child who has an eating disorder? Remember that the first step is to be attuned to your child’s emotional state. Keep in mind that often your first signal that your child needs co-regulation is that you’ll feel irritated or upset with them. Use that signal to determine where your child falls: are they dysregulated or disengaged? Once you know that, you can start to intuit the feelings they are experiencing.

Once you are tuned into your child’s emotional state, you can begin co-regulating by: 

  • Making gentle, non-threatening eye contact
  • Using a soothing vocal tone
  • Saying kind words of understanding and validation
  • Touching them gently and respectfully
  • Breathing deeply to keep your nervous system regulated
  • Using compassionate self-talk to keep yourself centered

The most important part of co-regulation is to keep your nervous system centered and confident. What you feel is more important than what you do or say.

Remember that you can always come back and talk about the problematic behavior that tipped you off to your child’s need for co-regulation. But you cannot have useful conversations about behavior while your child is in a state of dysregulation or disengagement.

Activities you can do together

The steps above are the most important part of co-regulation. But sometimes it will help to move into activity. Be thoughtful here and make sure activity is called for. Adjust your activity and expectations based on the level of dysregulation or disengagement. It’s unlikely that you will want to use the same activity all the time. These are a few go-to activities that can help your nervous system get in touch with theirs if they are resisting connection:

  • Art: color, paint, or doodle
  • Play: play a simple and non-competitive game from childhood
  • Stretch: do some gentle stretches
  • Exercise: go for a walk or run
  • Pets: talk about your pets and/or pet your pets
  • Eat/Drink: make a cup of tea or a piece of toast to share
  • Go outside: look up at the sky, look at trees or grass
  • Read: read a book out loud in a calm voice. You could choose something from childhood that holds good memories
  • Light a scented candle: smell is a powerful and underutilized way to soothe and calm the nervous system
  • Listen to music together

While you do these activities, don’t worry about what you say. Worry about how you feel. The goal is to stay in your child’s presence so that your calm, confident emotional state will automatically transmit to their dysregulated or disengaged nervous system.

emotional regulation

Be careful of the talk trap

Avoid getting stuck in the trap of thinking that co-regulation relies on talking about feelings. It does not. Your child cannot have useful, meaningful conversations with you when they are dysregulated or disengaged. Therefore, while soothing talk may be helpful, trying to talk about the behavior or even the feelings may not be helpful and can even get in the way. Focus on feeling calm and being with your child and rely on your senses rather than words. 

If your child wants to talk, validate what they say and help them clarify their feelings and thoughts. But avoid debating, offering advice, or providing guidance when you see signs of dysregulation or disengagement.

You can have longer and more meaningful conversations once they are regulated, which means they are showing signs of being calm and confident. But trying to do this when they are not emotionally regulated can backfire.

How we can do this better

As parents, our nervous system is constantly communicating with our kids’ nervous systems. This is why attending to our own emotional health will help our kids feel better. 

In fact, there are several validated interventions in which only parents are treated for childhood emotional disorders. In these cases, therapists never work directly with the child, but instead, teach the parent emotional regulation skills. And they work just as well if not better than direct intervention with the child. 

How to strengthen your emotional regulation as an adult:

  • Work with a therapist/coach to discover and address your own dysregulation and disconnection patterns
  • Practice meditation
  • Learn self-compassion 
  • Nourish your body with food you love
  • Move your body joyfully
  • Get outdoors every day
  • Learn self-acceptance
  • Find a hobby or something you do enthusiastically just because you enjoy it
  • Build/deepen your friendships and relationships with others

Supporting our kids’ eating disorder recovery

Parents can make a significant difference in kids’ recovery from eating disorders. And while feeding your child and getting them to therapy are important, your emotional growth can also make a big difference. 

Learning emotional regulation and how to co-regulate with your child may be the difference-maker you’ve been looking for! You can download my eBook: Emotional Regulation Skills for Parents Who Have Kids With Eating Disorders. In this eBook you’ll learn how to recognize the different emotional states and how to respond, plus powerful worksheets to help you get started.

This article is informed by the work of Stephen Porges, Daniel Siegel, and Mona Delahooke

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Feeling sad in recovery from an eating disorder

Getting sad in recovery for an eating disorder

If your child in in recovery for an eating disorder, it’s very possible that they feel sad. And maybe this is making you sad, too. Most parents feel overwhelmed handling the eating disorder behavior, and don’t know what to do when sadness shows up.

As parents, we want to protect our children from uncomfortable feelings, especially sadness and despair. Most of us came into parenting during the time of a glut of Happiness books, speeches, and articles. Scientists explored exactly how we can increase our happiness with daily tasks, based on the assumption that being happier is always better.

Most of us, when asked, will say that what we want most of all is for our kids to be happy.

We may embrace sayings like “good vibes only” and strive every day to turn lemons into lemonade. When our children feel sad, we jump through hoops to try and remedy it as soon as possible – to return to happy.

The tyranny of happy

It sounds really nice to pursue happiness, but the fact is that many of us who pursue a happier life find ourselves actually feeling emptier and sadder. Why?

Because it turns out that sadness is a part of natural emotional hygiene. To expect ourselves – and our children – to live in a state of perpetual happiness is to deny the natural fluctuation of emotions.

Feeling sadness and any negative emotion is not only normal, it’s actually healthier than trying to force ourselves to remain in a constant state of bliss.

When we have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s hard not to think that we need to help our child find a higher state of happiness in life. We may think that recovery from their eating disorder will mean a return to happiness.

Certainly, if our child is depressed, we should seek treatment for that condition. But the opposite of depression is not eternal happiness. The opposite of depression is the ability to feel a full range of emotions, including sadness.

Recovery from an eating disorder does not mean happiness all the time or never feeling sad. It means we recognize and metabolize the full range of emotions including, but not limited to happiness. This means we need to feel free to experience anger, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, and the thousands of other emotions that make us human.

Parents who are afraid of the full range of human emotions are likely to get uncomfortable with this. They may accidentally try to interfere with natural emotional ranges by pursuing happiness rather than allowing sadness and other negative emotions.

But parents need to accept all mood states, not just the positive ones.

Acknowledge feelings

The first step in learning emotional hygiene – the natural metabolism of emotions throughout each and every day – is to acknowledge that our emotions run a wide range. We have to acknowledge that we are not meant to remain in a steady emotional state.

In fact, that is a clear sign of depression: the lack of emotional fluctuation. Take some time in your family to acknowledge that feelings come and go every single day. We all have a broad range of positive, negative and neutral feelings, and that is absolutely healthy.

Name feelings

Building emotional literacy, or the ability to put a name on your emotions, helps to build emotional resilience and reduce shame around negative emotional states. When we talk about our feelings, we allow them to exist without worrying that they will last forever. Talking about emotions is a daily practice that we can all work on in our families.

Some of us find it helpful to print out lists of emotions to help us name them. It’s too easy to call every negative feeling afraid, angry or sad. And that’s certainly a good place to start, but there are so many nuances to those feelings. We can add words like despair, fear, horror, and shame to help us better define our feelings. This will allow them out into the light where they can breathe and move on.

Don’t forget that sometimes we need to combine feelings to get an accurate picture. For example, before a big event, a child may say they feel scared. But upon deeper reflection, they are a combination of nervous and excited. You can even put these words together to form new feelings, like “nercited.”

Welcome feelings

Even if we are able to name our feelings and have a broad emotional vocabulary, we still have to work hard to welcome the negative feelings into our lives.

Almost all of us were taught to reject, deny and ignore negative emotions. A good reason for this is that negative feelings make parents very uncomfortable.

As little children, our parents, in wanting what was best for us, probably tried to get us to stop crying. A better approach would have been to welcome our tears and reassure us that they were perfectly natural and healthy. These lessons learned every day for many years, taught us to hide negative mood states.

We can learn to welcome the full gamut of our family’s feelings. Every member of our family is going to undergo mood states throughout the day. And a good portion of those feelings are going to be in the negative category.

Rather than not allowing negative feelings or trying to pretend that everything is just fine, practice instead welcoming these feelings.

Talk about the fact that life is challenging.

Sometimes it sucks.

But it will suck much, much more if feelings are repressed. In fact, repressed feelings are integral to almost all addictive and maladaptive behaviors, including eating disorders.

Most people who go through recovery for an eating disorder will be sad at times. But this doesn’t mean recovery is a failure. It means that recovery opens up a person to the full range of human emotion. And this is a sign of mental health.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Helping a child feel feelings in eating disorder recovery

A common part of eating disorder recovery is learning to feel feelings. This may seem like a strange task, but it may be the most important thing we need to do to achieve full recovery.

People who have an eating disorder typically become disconnected from their feelings. Rather than process feelings, someone with an eating disorder turns to food and exercise behaviors and an obsession with weight as a coping mechanism.

When we’re healthy, we recognize feelings and metabolize them as they arise. Mental health means that when feelings arise we don’t ignore, avoid, or use a coping behavior to distract ourselves from them. But in our culture many people are “feeling-phobic.” Most of us are desperate to avoid the negative feelings that are a part of being human.

What is your family’s emotional coping style?

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then it’s time to evaluate your family’s emotional coping style. Take a moment and think about:

  • Do we try to avoid negative feelings?
  • Have we tried to cheer up or distract our kids from negative feelings?
  • When a child gets upset, do we either get angry or shut down because it’s too hard for us?

These three behaviors are really common parenting practices. And they are also harmful, because they show our kids that their feelings are unsafe and dangerous. Feelings like anger, despair, loneliness, sadness, and betrayal are natural and normal parts of being human. And even though our intentions are good when we try to get our kids back to being happy, we’re accidentally creating a problem.

Rather than trying to get our kids “back to happy,” parents need to instead help kids feel all types of feelings without shame or fear.

Feeling feelings – the good and the bad

The goal for mental health is to feel both the good and bad feelings. This can be scary, since most of us were raised to fear bad emotions, and of course we have tried to shield our kids from bad feelings.

Some feelings that parents tend to welcome and encourage include:

  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Pleasure
  • Gratefulness
  • Contentment
  • Delight

Some feelings that parents tend to try to shut down and move past as quickly as possible include:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Guilt

How do we try to move past these emotions? Here are some ways:

FearDon’t be afraid! You’ll be all right.
AngerStop yelling! You need to calm down.
LonelinessDon’t be sad. Just call someone. Didn’t you have a good time with Dante last time you played with him?
DespairOh, it’s not so bad! Things will get better, I promise.
GuiltYou need to stop thinking about it and just fix it.

All of these responses feel perfectly normal in today’s parenting culture. However, they all do one thing: discount the child’s feelings, which are real. Even if you don’t agree with or like the feeling, the fact is that it exists, and denying it only creates side effects.

When parents try to skip negative feelings, we accidentally create conditions in which our children are afraid of feeling negative feelings. The message they receive when we try to move past their feelings too quickly is that negative feelings are dangerous and bad and should be avoided at all costs.

Yet feelings live in our bodies and are a sign of health. Our bodies were designed to feel a broad range of emotions, including negative ones. Having bad feelings isn’t a sign that something’s wrong. It’s a sign that our minds and bodies are behaving exactly as they should.

It is adaptive to feel negative feelings sometimes. It is maladaptive to try and avoid negative feelings.

Healing from an eating disorder

When our children are in the healing process from an eating disorder, they need to learn how to process their negative feelings. We tend to think the most important milestones in eating disorder recovery are a reduction in weight obsession and eating/exercise behaviors. But in fact the most important milestone in eating disorder recovery may be learning to feel feelings.

Eating disorders are a way to cope with feelings. So while lots of people can resist the temptation to use their eating disorder behaviors for a while, if they haven’t learned to feel their feelings, it’s likely they will return to their eating disorder when things get stressful (and they will).

Learning to feel feelings can be a painful process. When we first start to have negative feelings without the benefit of our coping mechanisms, we can feel deeply afraid and get triggered to act out our eating disorder or other destructive coping behavior.

This is why eating disorder recovery is so painful. It looks like the problem is food, exercise, and weight. But the real problem is feelings.

How to feel feelings

The first step in feeling feelings is noticing how often we have them. Most of us are so automatically averse to feeling negative feelings that it can take some time to notice them. Please remember that this is about practice, not perfection.

The best way to help your child navigate eating disorder recovery is to start practicing feeling feelings as a family. Bookmark or print out this simple guide and work together to help each other feel feelings, especially the negative ones.

This may sound like you’re all going to be incredibly depressed all the time. But I assure you that, just like clouds in the sky, negative feelings, when felt openly and freely, pass. As you get better at this practice, you will notice that even the most intense negative feelings can usually be fully felt and metabolized in fewer than five minutes. I’m not saying that in order to encourage you to use a stopwatch, but I’m just letting you know that it gets easier with practice.

Here are the steps to feeling feelings:

1. Notice

First, you have to recognize that you’re having a feeling. Sometimes this is the hardest part!

I’m having a feeling.

2. Locate

Find out where in your body you can feel the feeling. Our emotions live in our bodies, so it’s important not to try and turn a feeling into a thought. Feelings are much more than thoughts!

My head is pounding.
It feels hard to breathe.
My eyes are scrunching up.

emotional regulation

3. Name

Give the feeling a name. Use the “Feelings Wheel” to help identify which one feels most likely. Try to go beyond the basics: angry, sad, and afraid. Stretch your emotional vocabulary to incorporate lots of feeling words.

I’m feeling lonely and hopeless, and I feel scared that I feel this way.

4. Accept

Accept the feeling. Tell it that it’s welcome to exist. Validate its existence.

I feel so alone right now.
This totally sucks for me.
I hate this.

5. Talk

Talk about the feeling and remind yourself that while the feeling is valid, it will pass. A feeling is important, but it’s also not a fact.

Self-Talk: Feeling bad feelings is so hard for me. I struggle to accept these sorts of feelings in myself. I feel scared when I feel these feelings.

With a Loved One: Feeling bad feelings can be scary. It makes sense that you struggle to accept all of your feelings. I’m so sorry you’re having these hard feelings, and I’m here for you.

6. Touch

Because feelings live in the body, it helps to touch or be touched with love and acceptance. In this way you are acknowledging the embodiment of the feeling.

Alone: I can soothe myself by touching my own skin lovingly – on my arm, my leg, my face. My touch transmits my love and acceptance physically to myself.

With a Loved One: I will soothe you by touching your skin lovingly in a place that you agree is comfortable and safe for you. With my touch, I’m transmitting my love and acceptance physically to you.

7. Sit

Give the feeling time to exist. Don’t rush it away or try to force it into gratefulness or happiness. This process will get easier the more completely you accept the negative feeling and validate it.

Alone: I’m going to sit here for a while and feel this feeling. I’m going to keep talking to myself and touching my skin to remember that I’m here, and I’m safe, and this feeling will pass.

With a Loved One: I’m going to sit here for as long as you feel this feeling. There’s nothing more important. Nothing else I need to do. I’m going to keep talking to you and touching your skin to remind you that I’m here, and you’re safe.

Here is a printable PDF to help (click to download):

I hope this helps you help your whole family build emotional resilience and the ability to feel all feelings. I know first-hand how hard it is to practice this, but I can also attest to the incredible healing power of feeling feelings. This takes patience. It is not easy. But it is well worth it.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How to handle your child’s food anxiety

How to handle your child's food anxiety

Learning how to handle your child’s food anxiety before, during, and after mealtimes is essential to recovery. Often anxiety lies at the root of meal refusal: worries about eating, worries about the food, and worries about what will happen after eating are common.Parents can help children heal from eating disorders by learning to help them tolerate food anxiety.

Eating disorders very often coexist with anxiety disorders. This means that while the presenting issue is the eating behavior, often the underlying issue is anxiety. And while there is relatively little research and data on eating disorders, which are chronically under-funded, there is a wealth of information about anxiety.

Studies have shown that parents can have a tremendous impact on either increasing or decreasing their child’s anxiety. And the good news is that parents can learn to reliably reduce their kids’ anxiety by acknowledging it and helping kids face, rather than avoid fear.

When parents learn to handle their child’s food anxiety, they can significantly help with recovery.

Anxiety and eating disorders

Anxiety is a nervous system response to a threat. Mammals are biologically wired to seek comfort and security from their parents when faced with a threat. Therefore, when a human child senses a threat, they seek the parent’s comfort and security to feel better. And this can work really well.

But when we’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, a child’s fear can seem overblown or ridiculous, and parents will often brush it off without realizing that the child is seeking comfort and security. In other cases, parents can’t recognize that the problem is anxiety because it often masquerades as anger, withdrawal, and obstinance.

Patti and Ava

That’s what happened with Patti (not her real name), who consulted with me about her daughter Ava’s (not her real name) eating disorder. “She often won’t even sit at the table. She just goes into her room and slams the door,” said Patti. “If she does come to the table she just sits there staring out the window and refuses to do anything.”

This is a tough situation to be in. I explained to Patti that withdrawal is one way a child can respond to stress and worry. I suspected that Ava felt overwhelmed by her feelings of fear about food, and rather than ask Patti for help, she just shut down.

With this in mind, we explored Patti’s feelings about Ava’s big feelings, especially worry. And Patti told me that when Ava was young she was worried about everything. “It was so frustrating and irritating,” Patti said. “I thought the best thing to do is just ignore it, and I guess that’s where I went wrong.”

Patti did what a lot of parents do. It’s not so much that she did something “wrong,” but her behavior taught Ava that she needs to process feelings by herself, and sharing them with her mom wouldn’t help. Without the skills to process her feelings of worry, Ava became stuck in her anxiety, and in those conditions an eating disorder can flourish.

I worked with Patti to help teach Ava to express her worries in lots of small and big ways. This took effort and practice. Neither of them had experience doing this. But pretty quickly, Ava started opening up. She started telling her mom she was afraid of eating.

Sometimes she would yell, sometimes she would cry. No matter what, Patti worked on being present with Ava’s fear even when it was uncomfortable. Patti’s behavior “unlocked” Ava’s anxiety. And once Ava started to express herself, Patti was able to respond to anxiety to help it become less of an impediment to eating.

We need to face anxiety head-on to recover from eating disorders

So what’s a parent to do? How can we help our child handle food and eating anxiety? As I said, we know a lot about how anxiety works, and the most important thing to know is that it’s predictable. Anxiety tells us we must avoid whatever it is afraid of. And this is the key to recovery. Rather than trying to stop the anxiety from happening, we practice feeling the anxiety and not avoiding the thing we’re afraid of.

This is where parents can help. You see, often parents accidentally empower the anxiety by helping the child avoid the thing they are afraid of. We feed eating disorder behaviors when we make accommodations to avoid or step around their fear.

For example, if your child is afraid of fat, you may make low-fat meals. If they reject carbs, you prepare low-carb alternatives. If they’re afraid of restaurants, you stop eating out. These accommodations may seem to help in the short term. But they teach the child that they are not capable of facing fear. Instead of empowering them to walk through their fear, accommodations enable them to avoid it.

Avoiding fear feeds fear. The only way out of anxiety is to walk through the fear, over and over, and see that you can survive anxiety and fear.* When a parent is next to you, holding your hand while you walk through the fear (but not turning back), it’s easier.

We need to face our food anxiety head-on to recover from an eating disorder. We need to see that we are strong enough to endure our anxiety and be OK on the other side.

*Note: if your child has PTSD or a history of trauma, it may not be safe for them to approach fear in this manner. Please check with a qualified trauma therapist.

emotional regulation

Prepare yourself first

If your child has an eating disorder, then food is a trigger for their anxiety. They key to handling your child’s anxiety is to be prepared. Expect fear to show up and be prepared to respond without accommodating.

Before you can help your child with their food anxiety, it’s important to calm your own nervous system. As mammals, our children seek us for co-regulation. That means that if our emotional state is relatively calm and confident, our children are more likely to be soothed.

You have to calm yourself to calm your child

This is hard. When a child has an eating disorder, all you want is for them to stop whatever they are doing with food and “be normal.” Also, anxiety tends to be annoying. It can be really irritating to be with someone who is afraid of food. But, as you know by now, your emotional state is contagious.

So how do you soothe yourself so you can soothe your child?

There are lots of options. As a baseline, get plenty of sleep each night, which will hugely impact your nervous system. Next, begin a mindfulness practice. Get enough sleep and practice at least 10-minutes of mindful meditation every day. This will train you to tune into your body and soothe your nervous system.

Then, immediately before you serve your child food, do a 2-10-minute mindful meditation to calm your nervous system.

This may seem like a lot of work. It is. But this preparation will make a significant impact on your effectiveness. If you dive in without preparing yourself emotionally, you may exacerbate the anxiety. Unless it is impossible, make this investment in your child’s recovery. It will also improve your own mental health. It’s draining to talk to someone who has an eating disorder, especially when you are emotionally activated.

When child and parent are both anxious, very little good can occur.

How to co-regulate with your child

Your child is going to experience anxiety around food until they have recovered from their eating disorder. While parents can’t fix their kids’ disorders, they can help them tolerate anxiety around meals.

1. Before a meal beings

Check in meaningfully with your child. Make contact with them however you can, such as:

  • Ask them about their day
  • Do some yoga poses together
  • Go for a gentle walk together
  • Throw a ball back and forth
  • Massage their hands, back, or shoulders
  • Color together

This will help your child and you get in the co-regulation mode. Doing something physical together can help you attune to each other as much as talking does. Once you are co-regulated, it’s more likely that you can help them get on-track if their anxiety flares up.

2. During a meal

You should anticipate and be prepared for anxiety. But avoid allowing anxiety to run the show. It helps to tell your child in advance what you expect from them during meals.

For example, if they have a meal plan, you can expect them to follow it. And maybe you expect them to stay at the table while everyone else is eating.

They will likely complain about anything you ask them to do during meals. Your goal is to compassionately acknowledge their complaints without accommodating them. In other words, don’t let them ditch the meal plan or the table mid-meal. Agreements should be honored even if it’s uncomfortable for them.

3. When they have anxiety during a meal

Your child may do all sorts of things to try and control the meal to accommodate their anxiety. Your goal is to stay steady and acknowledge but not accommodate the anxiety. Here is a great phrase to use during a meal when your child is struggling to eat:

First, acknowledge the anxiety: “I can see that you’re struggling and I know this is hard.”

Next, express trust in them: “And I believe that you can do this.”

It’s important not to get pulled into an extended conversation about this. Calmly and consistently repeat the phrase rather than engaging with the anxiety.

4. After a meal

If things didn’t go well during a meal, you may need to check in after the meal. You can ask your child what they think went wrong. Time this so that it’s well after the meal itself and well before the next meal. Try to focus on creating a plan for tolerating anxiety vs. avoiding anxiety in the future. In other words, if they refused to eat carbs, don’t talk about the carbs or tell them they don’t have to eat them. Talk about the anxiety about the carbs and how they can tolerate the anxiety.

Example: Breakfast breakdown

Here’s an example of a breakfast that’s gone sideways:

Jamie is pushing her plate away without eating.

Mom: “Jamie, it’s on your meal plan that you will eat an apple and peanut butter for breakfast.”

Jamie: “But I can’t. I feel sick. I can’t eat. You can’t make me!”

Mom: “I understand, and I know it’s hard to eat when you don’t want to. But I also know that we talked about this and agreed that you will face your fears and eat what you said you would eat.”

Jamie: “But I can’t!”

Mom: “Jamie, remember that we agreed that we don’t change the plan during mealtimes. This is a mealtime, so I need you to eat. We can re-examine how we handle breakfast another time, but for right now this is the agreement.”

Jamie: “It’s not fair.”

Mom: “I understand, but remember that we made this agreement together.”

Jamie begins to eat breakfast. She puts on a show of gagging and suffering while eating. Mom is compassionate and firm at the same time. Jamie finishes breakfast reluctantly.

Later that afternoon, Mom revisits breakfast:

Mom: “So this morning you had trouble with breakfast. Do you want to talk about it?”

Jamie: “No.”

Mom: “OK, but what I saw is that you felt anxious about eating what was on your meal plan. Would you like me to adjust how I responded to your anxiety about eating, or was it OK?”

Jamie: “I guess.”

Mom: “Jamie, this only works if we’re in agreement. Do you agree that we’re on the same page about following the meal plan and facing food anxiety together like we did this morning?”

Jamie: “Yes.”

Mom has acknowledged Jamie’s feelings and gained agreement to continue facing food fear rather than accommodating anxiety.

What happens when eating

No matter how well you have planned, eating disorder behaviors will probably show up during meals. This is usually not because your child is stubborn or not committed to recovery. It’s usually because eating disorders are rooted in a lot of anxiety, and food is a major anxiety trigger for your child.

Remember that your goal is to handle – not accommodate – your child’s food anxiety.

If your child had anxiety about getting on a plane, you would recognize that going to the airport and getting on a plane will create anxiety for your child. With an eating disorder, meals will create anxiety.

The key is to remember that the anxiety is the root issue, not the food itself. Work on your ability to tolerate your child’s anxiety and help them walk through it. Have a plan for how to handle anxiety when it arises during meals.

And, most importantly, take care of yourself and get the care you deserve. Parenting a child with any anxiety is taxing. We can help our kids so much, but we have to make sure we’re getting help for ourselves, too.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Bodily autonomy, independence, and an eating disorder

Bodily autonomy & the search for independence through eating disorders

Terri is worried. Her 14-year-old daughter Natalia had been struggling with an eating disorder for over a year. Terri feels like a helpless bystander and the whole family is suffering.

“Natalia was always so diligent, kind, and helpful,” says Terri. “I never thought she would be the one to struggle with anything. It seemed to me like she was doing so well. But now everything has been turned upside down.”

In addition to the terrifying eating disorder behaviors, Terri has also noticed that Natalia is dressing very differently and has developed a passion for tattoos and body piercing. “It’s all she can talk about,” says Terri. “She spends so much time looking at tattoos and piercings on TikTok. It’s become this new wild passion. She’s wearing dark, torn clothing and wants a green mohawk! She just looks nothing like the girl we knew before.”

I can understand Terri’s concerns, and I also sense that perhaps something related to identity and bodily autonomy is going on. In fact, eating disorders can be seen as a pursuit of bodily autonomy, so this is not unusual. But we need to understand why Natalia is seeking to assert her bodily autonomy. This will help us know how to help her feel better.

Eating disorders and bodily autonomy

It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to overlap with a pursuit of bodily autonomy. Seeking to change your body and control what it does and how it looks makes perfect sense, especially during adolescence. It’s a natural part of human development to test boundaries and try on different identities. But when trying things out involves a drastic change in appearance, using eating disorder behaviors, or otherwise interferes with life, we obviously want to understand more.

It’s not uncommon for people who have an eating disorder to also alter their bodies in other ways. More conventional people may spend time styling their hair, perfecting their makeup and nails, and finding the ideal outfit to fit in with their peers. On the other hand, less conventional teens may become interested in alternative clothing, hairstyles, piercings, and more. Of course, these teens are also “fitting in” with an image, just in a different way from the more conventional teen.

What we want to consider is whether their attention to appearance is normal teenage behavior. Or is it a deeper attempt to assert bodily autonomy?

Bodily autonomy is having ownership over your own body.

Bodily autonomy is an important part of developing into an independent and mentally-healthy person. It can be impacted by situations in which a person doesn’t feel they are in control of their own body. As a result, some people don’t feel they “own” or are in charge of their own bodies. They may seek to claim ownership through appearance and eating disorders.

Some reasons for low bodily autonomy include:

  • Sexual trauma
  • Physical abuse
  • Medical trauma (even though they are life-saving interventions)
  • Bullying
  • Accidents such as nearly drowning, car accidents, bike accidents, etc.

Beyond these personal incidents, bodily autonomy can also be impacted by broader social conditions such as:

  • Laws that prevent people from making decisions about their own body (e.g. anti-abortion laws, anti-gay-marriage laws, anti-trans laws, etc.)
  • Institutions like patriarchy and white supremacy that devalue groups of people based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Beliefs like homophobia and transphobia that demonize people for who they love or which gender fits.
  • If your child is non-white, female, and/or LGBTQ+, these social conditions reduce their bodily autonomy.

How parents impact a child’s bodily autonomy

Parents may accidentally make children feel they are not in charge of their own bodies. Often this makes perfect sense. For example, when kids are young, parents need to take steps to ensure their child’s safety. But in a highly sensitive child and/or in special cases, these interventions can create a sense of disconnection for the child. These kids need a little extra help to claim ownership of their bodies in a healthy, adaptive way.

There are three main ways that parents can accidentally impact bodily autonomy:

1. Life-saving interventions

Sometimes threats to bodily autonomy are medically necessary. For example, some parents must approve medical surgeries and interventions for their children. It may be a feeding tube for an eating disorder or surgery for a congenital defect. Regardless of why they are necessary, these medical interventions take away the child’s power to control their own bodies.

They are literally life-saving. And they still amount to a loss of bodily autonomy and thus can create trauma for the child. Trauma studies show that traumatic events impact different people in different ways. This is based on a combination of biology and how the trauma is dealt with or processed.

There are some people who are biologically more sensitive to bodily threats and trauma. But even for people who are not extra-sensitive, trauma tends to settle in if it’s not processed. Processing trauma with a professional can go a long way to preventing long-term post-traumatic traumatic stress.

2. Safety

There is a tricky boundary between keeping kids physically safe and allowing them to explore the world. This is an ongoing debate between parenting experts. Think of the difference between the bestselling books Free-Range Kids and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. These promote completely opposite approaches to raising kids.

Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy promotes complete bodily autonomy by allowing children to explore the world freely. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua promotes very low bodily autonomy and high parent monitoring. It even includes rules like no sleepovers.

As with most divisive parenting approaches, something in between is probably a good approach for most kids. They need certain boundaries but should have enough bodily autonomy to feel as if they are in charge of themselves. This is especially important as they grow older. Figuring out these boundaries is an imperfect pursuit – we all do our best.

3. Ignorance

There is a third, surprising way that parents can accidentally impact kids’ bodily autonomy, and it’s ignorance of the conditions that can reduce autonomy. For example, if parents are not informed and talking about racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, then their child will grow up without the benefit of knowing that these issues are not their fault or a personal failure. They are a failure of our society. On the other hand, if parents talk about and educate their children about racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, their children are more likely to develop bodily autonomy despite the social conditions. Similarly, traumatic experiences can be overcome if parents are educated about the impact of trauma on the sense of bodily autonomy and actively counteract it.

When eating disorders serve a purpose

There are many ways to look at an eating disorder. And no single view is going to address the full complexity of eating disorders. But one way to see an eating disorder is a way for a child to assert bodily autonomy and independence. As in: “You can’t tell me what to eat! Stop watching me! I’ll do it myself! I know best!”

When I talked about this with Terri, she felt an intuitive sense that we were onto something. “Natalia had a congenital heart defect that we had to have corrected when she was just two years old,” says Terri. “I can definitely see that the stress of having my baby get an operation influenced how I parented her. It caused me to be very anxious about her safety. I think most of it was unconscious. But as I look back, I know that I gave her brother a lot more freedom than I gave her.”

Terri was responding in a natural and intuitive way to the threat of medical complications. It makes perfect sense that, without realizing it, she was more nervous and cautious about Natalia.

When looking through this lens, we could consider how Natalia’s eating disorder behaviors and attention to her appearance were signaling that Natalia was craving her own independent identity. Also, we know that trauma often underlies eating disorders. We could hypothesize that the necessary surgery was likely a traumatic event for her. Trauma can be an issue even if she doesn’t consciously remember the details.

Eating disorder treatment often denies bodily autonomy

Terri also considered the impact of Natalia’s eating disorder treatment so far. “We took her to the emergency room against her will. And that began a series of medical and therapeutic interventions that were necessary but probably traumatic for her,” says Terri. “I’m so confused because we did what we had to do to keep her alive. But now it seems like maybe that made things worse?”

I assured Terri that many parents face this challenge. And she hadn’t done anything wrong. We have a responsibility to intervene to keep our kids as safe as possible. At the same time, while the interventions were medically necessary, they likely created additional trauma for Natalia. Both of these things can be true at the same time.

The solution is not to regret choices already made – they were necessary! Instead, focus on future action to address the trauma. Now that she’s out of medical danger, Terri can get help for Nadia’s trauma and help build her sense of bodily autonomy.

What parents can do to help

Parents can help their kids recover from an eating disorder by understanding the role of bodily autonomy in emotional health. Our ability to feel independent, strong, and in control of our circumstances is important. Parents who empower their children to claim their bodily autonomy will see positive results.

First, ask these questions:

  1. Is my child showing signs of a need for greater bodily autonomy? (e.g. eating disorder, unusual hair and clothes, body modification such as tattoos and piercings, etc.)
  2. Did my child experience trauma? Was there any situation in which they were physically out of control of their own body?
  3. Have I been anxious as a parent and even over-parented in some ways?
  4. Have I given my child ways to assert control over their own life and body?

If any of the above is true, then it makes sense to consider the role bodily autonomy is playing in your child’s recovery.

With these questions, Terri could connect some dots. She saw how situations that were out of her control had resulted in a lack of bodily autonomy for Natalia. This was a major breakthrough for her. We often feel helpless to help our kids until we understand what might have contributed to their troubles. Once we identify why things could be happening, we are better able to help.

Improving bodily autonomy when there’s an eating disorder

Here are some things that parents can do to increase their child’s sense of bodily autonomy:

  1. Work on your own fears and worries. Get some help in building your anxiety tolerance so you avoid passing it along to your child.
  2. If trauma is a factor in your child’s history, seek treatment for the trauma. Talk therapy may not be as effective as somatic (body) therapies for trauma, since trauma is held in the body.
  3. Become educated about and talk to your child about racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and other harmful and exclusionary systems so they are empowered to claim their right to exist as they are.
  4. Seek ways to increase your child’s bodily autonomy. What choices can you allow them to make for themselves? In what ways can they be responsible for their own life choices?
  5. Look for ways to gain consent and agreement before imposing rules, systems, and structures on your child.
  6. Encourage your child to express themselves through their body without a sense of shame or rebellion. The more we allow healthy self-expression, the less likely it is to become a problem.
  7. Let go of bothersome but not permanent and/or dangerous forms of expression. For example, allow strange clothing, nail polish, and hairstyles – they are temporary and harmless. On the other hand, it’s OK to hold boundaries on things like tattoos and piercings while your child is under 18 if that’s something you feel strongly about.
  8. Consider how your child’s eating disorder treatment may contribute to a lack of bodily autonomy. Seek treatment providers who maximize personal responsibility and agency rather than those who seek to control your child’s behaviors.
  9. Look for ways to improve your empathy, unconditional positive regard, and attunement to your child’s emotional needs. Seek support and guidance from a counselor, therapist, or coach to learn these skills.

Moving forward

If your child is in immediate medical danger, you may need to take control of their physical health. But you can still improve your child’s bodily autonomy through the process. Many parents have to make choices that impact their kids’ bodily autonomy. It’s OK! Just help your child process the trauma with the help of a trained trauma therapist.

Terri found a wonderful EMDR therapist for Natalia who worked with her medical trauma. Meanwhile, Terri worked on expanding Natalia’s sense of agency and control over her life. While she couldn’t release all oversight of Natalia’s health due to the eating disorder, we found lots of small ways to increase Natalia’s sense of freedom and choice in other areas of her life.

Recognizing the link between bodily autonomy and Natalia’s eating disorder made a big difference. Within a few months, Terri felt closer and more connected to Natalia, and things were looking a whole lot better for the whole family!

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.

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Low self-worth and eating disorders: what parents need to know

by Beth Mayer, LICSW

There is a high correlation between eating disorders and low self-worth. Because of this, when I’m working with clients who have eating disorders, I’m watching carefully for self-worth, self-compassion, and perfectionism. The more my clients build the first three and limit perfectionism, the greater their chance of entering recovery from their eating disorders. 

What is self-worth?

When you have self-worth, you believe that you are inherently valuable regardless of what you do or how you look. People who have low self-worth tend to look outside of themselves to feel worthy. This is really common among people who have eating disorders, and many of them are using their bodies as a way to pursue worthiness.

Unfortunately, low self-worth is pretty rampant. And what may be surprising is that often the people who look like they have high self-worth are actually suffering the most. These are the great students, powerful athletes, and leaders who get tons of accolades, yet many of them feel bad about themselves.

I worked with someone who was the top of her class, named the class president, and looked as if she should have been on top of the world. But she was depressed and had an eating disorder. The world just couldn’t see what she was feeling about herself.

These are tough cases, because we have to find a way to meet the person where they are while gradually supporting them in seeing their inherent self-worth, which must exist regardless of grades, awards, weight, or any other external measurement.

Parenting for positive food and body

How parents can help kids develop higher self-worth

Lots of parents want to help their kids by jumping in with positive messages. But unfortunately this can exacerbate the problem, especially if they are focused on external measures of success.

For example, saying things like “you’re beautiful,” “you’re perfect,” “you’re a huge success,” can really backfire. This is because the person may come to believe that their parents’ love is dependent upon being those things.

What we need is for our kids to know that they are worthy for who they are, not what they look like or what they do to meet conventional standards of success.

This can be really hard for parents, but there’s a side door that can help. Start by recognizing them for their kindness rather than their appearance or accomplishments. For example, notice that they showed up for a friend when it was difficult, or they smiled at a child, or they gave a lovely hug.

The job of parents who want to increase their kids’ self-worth is to not try to convince a child that they are meeting conventional standards of success. Because that will just keep them on a hamster wheel forever, desperate to keep succeeding. Instead, parents should take tiny snippets of everyday kindnesses and work to feel good about them.

Self-worth and social media

People have always had low self-worth – it’s not a new thing. But something I’m seeing in my practice is that it’s easier than ever to fake happiness and self-worth. Social media makes it easy to seek social approval and look like you are successful. This can make it easy for people who are suffering to look like they’re living a great life.

On social media you can fake a vacation, fake happiness, and fake success. This makes it really easy to fake self-worth even when you feel completely empty.

At the same time, kids can see everyone else who looks like they’re living an even better life. The constant access to curated views of other people’s lives right at our fingertips means it’s hard to turn the volume down on the feeling that we’re not doing enough or good enough. 

Self-compassion and recovery

Possibly the best antidote to the low self-worth is self-compassion. The work that Kristin Neff has done to bring awareness to self-compassion is amazing.

Self-compassion means that even when the entire world seems to be screaming that we are not enough, we can reach inside and treat ourselves as we would a good friend.

I love this quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lots of the people I work with are looking for the light to come from outside of themselves, when the light they need is already inside of them. Building self-worth and self-compassion are the keys to help them light up and see their value without the external measures.

Our society keeps telling people that they are not enough. This is leading to massive increases in all sorts of problems, including depression, anxiety, suicidality, and eating disorders. All of my colleagues who are eating disorder specialists are seeing an influx of patients – and at younger ages – than ever before. We are definitely struggling as a society, and I think that if we can address self-worth, we will make some progress.

body image for girls ebook

Perfectionism is the enemy of self-worth

Perfectionistic tendencies are highly correlated with both eating disorders and low self-worth. Perfectionism is a personality trait in which a person strives to be flawless. They set very high performance standards for themselves. Unfortunately, they also are highly self-critical and are overly concerned with others’ evaluations of their performance.

It’s easy to see how this relates to eating disorders. It may be hard or out of reach for a person to achieve perfection in many areas, but most people believe that if they just work hard enough and control their behavior enough, they can have a “perfect” body.

So many people who have eating disorders feel they aren’t smart enough or good enough, but they can have a good enough body. They mistakenly believe that if they look good, they are good. That becomes their focus, and everything else becomes non-essential. They aren’t able to celebrate who they really are.

Of course, there is no such thing as a “perfect” body, and in my practice I see the damage done by the pursuit of bodily perfection every day.

One of the things I see a lot is that when people are feeling out of control, one of the things that they perceive that they can control is their body. They feel like if they can fix their bodies they can fix their lives. Our society has promoted the idea that bodies can and should be changed. But the truth is that nobody is going to like you any more or less with a different type of body.

Parents against perfectionism

One way that parents can help their kids avoid the trap of perfectionism is to let their kids have issues. Don’t protect them from everything, because that suggests to them (subconsciously) that they need to get things right to be safe and valued.

Parents should give their kids responsibilities, and not always protect and advocate for them. This builds up resilience. The fact is that nothing and nobody is perfect. Unless we model to our kids that it’s natural and safe to make mistakes – even to fail – they may lean towards perfectionism.

What I wish parents knew

If there were one thing I could pass along to parents, it would be to pay attention to how willing you are to get messy. We have become a very driven society that avoids mess. We want everything to be clean and straightforward, but that takes away our creativity and our very humanity. 

We’re teaching our kids to avoid getting messy, which keeps them in a tight box of right and wrong, good and bad, perfect and not-perfect. The world just isn’t organized that way, and it really limits our resilience when we believe it is. 

I would love to see parents get comfortable with, model, and encourage their kids to embrace the messiness of our lives. To embrace the fact that we don’t need to be perfect to be loved. In fact, most people love us most when we are most authentic and least perfectionistic. 

beth mayer meda

Beth Mayer, LICSW, has been working in the eating disorders field for 35 years. She is nationally recognized for her clinical work with eating disorders and has spoken at conferences around the country. In addition to eating disorders, Beth specializes in treating adolescents and families. Beth has served as an adjunct professor at Simmons College, Boston University, Boston College, Lesley University and Salem State College, supervising MSW and LMHC graduate student interns. She is currently the co-chair of the NEDA network and serves on many local and national committees. Beth holds a B.S. in Clinical Psychology from Quinnipiac University and a Master of Social Work Degree from Boston College. She can be reached at / 617-325-1013

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Self-care for kids with eating disorders

Here's how parents can teach self-care to kids

Parents who teach their kids who have eating disorders self-care can make a huge impact on their lifetime health and wellness. Kids who have eating disorders often struggle with poor self-care habits. Parents are critical when it comes to developing healthy self-care practices that will last a lifetime.

What is self-care?

Self-care is a way for someone to recognize and respond to their personal needs. It’s unfortunate that this is something to be learned, but our culture is actually anti-self-care. Many of us are actively taught to be selfless and care for others before caring for ourselves. Putting ourselves first and caring for our own needs can be a revolutionary act in our society.

A lot of the things you read about self-care focus on things like bubble baths, massages, and glasses of wine. But true self-care is a daily practice of tuning into who you are and what you truly need.

Why is self-care important for kids with eating disorders?

We are currently facing terrifying increases in suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. Our children are entering a society that is clearly emotionally compromised.

This is a huge public health crisis. There are many societal and structural changes that need to take place to make our culture safer for our kids. But for now, as parents, we simply need to do our very best to help our kids be resilient against the mental health challenges they face.

One of the recognized methods for protecting children from mental health issues is to develop self-care routines that promote health and well-being. Self-care is essential if we want our kids to thrive despite increasing rates of poor mental health in our society.

How do we learn self-care?

Self-care begins with the word “self,” but it’s not something that needs to be developed alone. Human beings are finely attuned to social groups, particularly their parents. As a result, loving oneself often requires a sense of being loved in critical relationships. This is why self-care is often best when learned in partnership with a loving parent.

People can strive to learn to love themselves as adults. But it’s far easier if children are taught by their parents that they are deeply loved and accepted as children. It’s also helpful if parents show their kids some effective methods of self-care rather than just expecting them to develop it for themselves. When parents teach self-care to kids, it is easier for them to tap into self-love and personal caregiving any time they are struggling emotionally.

Feeling loved is the first pillar of self-care

Self-care is about loving ourselves. But because we are social animals, loving ourselves often begins with feeling loved by our parents. Almost all parents do love their children deeply and want only what’s best for them. But it’s surprisingly common for adult children to report that they did not feel loved by their parents. As a result, they have a hard time tapping into an innate sense of worthiness and acceptance, which is a foundation of self-care.

Parents can teach self-care to kids by helping them feel deeply loved. Parents need to give love in a way that children recognize at the moment. Giving love to our children will give them a lifetime of self-care techniques and improved health and happiness for life.

Love is not as much a feeling as an action. And how parents show love is how kids learn to love themselves.

How parents can teach self-care to kids

You already love your child. That goes without saying. But how do you let them know they are loved? Are you able to tap into methods of showing more love to them when emotions are challenging? Parents can teach self-care to kids by showing them more love in the most difficult situations.

We teach our kids self-care by showing them we love them. We can’t assume our kids know we love them. Feeling love for our kids is not enough. Driving carpool, making three meals a day, and keeping a roof over their head is not the same as showing love, it’s the tactical work of being a parent.

Instead, we must show our kids we love them. Our love actions are how they learn self-care practices that will keep them healthy for life.

6 ways parents can show kids love

A parent’s demonstrated love actions build a powerful foundation for self-care and self-love. These six ways to show love will help you raise a child who knows how to care for themselves when you are not available. Your acts of love will guide their self-care practices for life.

1. Allow all feelings

Our society promotes toxic positivity. This damages our kids because they learn to repress their emotions, which is not healthy. Healthy emotional regulation requires that kids repeatedly feel negative emotions like anger, sadness, and fear when they are with their parents. And, over time, they learn that feelings are nothing to be scared about.

⭐ As your child recovers from their eating disorder, feeling their feelings is an essential part of self-care. They can only take care of their emotional needs if they are able to accept their emotional landscape.

2. Feed them fearlessly

Eating is a critical part of self-care. And yet our society promotes denying hunger and ignoring cravings. This damages our kids because appetite is an essential part of being human. Ignore societal messages that tell you to fear food and restrict what your child eats. This will support disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. Help your child tune into their hunger, appetite, and satiety. Teach them that there is nothing wrong with emotional eating. It’s just a part of being human.

⭐ As your child recovers from their eating disorder, eating fearlessly is an essential part of self-care. They can tune into their natural appetite and hunger cues and respond with love and kindness.

3. Tuck them into bed

In our go-go-go society, sleep is often neglected. But in fact, our kids need a tremendous amount of sleep to maintain basic health. Sleep affects mental and physical health. While your child is in recovery from their eating disorder they may need even more sleep than is normally recommended. The biggest impediments to sleep are phones, laptops, Netflix, and homework. Help your child establish a sleep hygiene routine. Yes, this will be hard. They will not like it. But sleep hygiene is an essential part of health and self-care.

⭐ In the short term, your child will need your help making sleep happen. But over time, they will learn the benefits of good sleep for themselves and make it part of their self-care.

emotional regulation

4. Touch them

Humans are social animals. Look at any images of mammals with their babies and you’ll notice how often they touch each other. We have much longer childhoods than other mammals, but the need for touch remains strong while our kids are living with us. If your child is not in the habit of being touched by you, then move very slowly. Touch their hand, shoulder, or some other area of their body lightly and briefly. Build up until you are intentionally giving them a little bit of touch every day. If your child already loves to be touched, then give them at least one 20-second hug every day.

⭐ When your child grows up, they will learn to give themselves gentle touch and seek it from loved ones. This can be an essential part of self-care.

5. Move together

You know how when your baby was crying it often helped to walk around the house holding them? Or perhaps they calmed down in the car? So many parents hold their infants against their bodies in chest carriers, which is deeply comforting. Movement is a powerful soothing activity, and it can defuse tension and anxiety. When your child is emotionally triggered, see if you can take a walk together or go for a drive together. When tensions are high at home and you’re having a hard time communicating, movement can often help to literally shake things up a little bit.

⭐ When you do this with your child you show them that sometimes the best self-care is a little bit of movement or a change of scenery. Sometimes moving the body can help offload tension and create a calmer emotional state.

A daily practice

Self-care is a daily practice; it’s more like brushing your teeth than taking a vacation. Many articles suggest big gestures are needed to take care of yourself. And those are great sometimes. But the best and easiest self-care is small actions often. When parents care for their kids like this, kids learn to tune into what they need and develop good self-care habits.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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What to do about your child’s anxiety about food and eating

anxiety about food and eating

Having anxiety about food and eating shows up in many eating disorders, especially anorexia and orthorexia. If your child has an eating disorder, it’s very likely they are struggling with a lot of anxiety around food and eating. It’s really frustrating to watch a child refuse to eat and have complete meltdowns over meals.

This is advanced parenting, but you can learn skills to help your child learn to soothe their food and eating anxiety. This is a great way to support your child at home while they undergo therapy for their eating disorder. If you learn how to manage your child’s food and eating anxiety, you can help them recover from their eating disorder.

1. Check your own anxiety about food and eating

It’s important to start with yourself. This is because while we live in a highly individualistic society that emphasizes individual agency, humans are designed to attune with each other. Parents are our first attunement partners, and how they feel deeply impacts how we feel.

It’s completely normal if you feel anxious when your child gets anxious. In fact, it would be a little strange if you didn’t! But this is where we have to build new emotional regulation skills and learn to stay calm inside of ourselves even as our child escalates into anxiety.

This is not easy. You understandably want to get your child to eat. But the fact is that you will be unable to meaningfully help them without first soothing your own anxiety.

Here’s the hard thing about anxiety: your child knows when you feel anxious. They feel it on a subconscious level, and they have felt it since your first held them and every day since. Your emotional security is crucial to their survival. Any unresolved anxiety can make them feel insecure and anxious.

It takes effort to learn to regulate your anxiety, but you can do it! And when you invest in your own anxiety management skills, your child will benefit.

2. Food and eating anxiety is not breaking news

One of the most important concepts to internalize about your child’s anxiety about food and eating is that it’s not breaking news. You have probably noticed that it pops up repeatedly. Whether it’s every meal or just certain meals, the fact is that your child feels anxious about eating.

Most of us naturally jump in to try and soothe the anxiety with words and questions. This makes a lot of sense, and perhaps it worked when your child was younger. But if your child is feeling consistently anxious about food and refusing to eat, then you are in a new stage of anxiety management, and your old methods don’t work anymore.

Parents must stop responding to anxiety as if it is breaking news that must be interviewed, reported on, and discussed at length as front page headlines. Instead, it’s more like the weather in Los Angeles. It may vary a little bit, and sometimes we have significant weather events, but it’s rare. Most of the time, native Los Angeleans don’t check the weather because we pretty much know what’s coming tomorrow, next week, and even next month. It’s almost never breaking news.

Here’s a scenario:

Lulu’s daughter Amy is very anxious about mealtimes. Every time she puts a plate down, Amy starts to shake and cry. She physically shrinks away from the food. Lulu asks her what’s wrong, and she cries more. “I reassure her that the food is healthy, safe, and tasty, and that she has liked it before, and she screams at me,” says Lulu. “Her palms are sweaty and she’s shaking. I keep asking her questions and trying to convince her that it’s safe, but it’s not working, and she’s pretty much not eating at this point.”

Here’s another way it could go:

Amy is very anxious about mealtimes. Lulu knows this. So before it’s time to eat, they talk a little bit about the fact that it’s time to eat and acknowledge that anxiety often shows up for meals. “Then we’ll take a walk together or do some yoga poses, or I’ll just sit quietly with her,” says Lulu. “I work to connect with her and let her know that I know anxiety is coming and that it’s OK. We don’t make a big deal out of the reasons for her anxiety, we just assume it’s going to show up. After doing this for a while, we’re noticing that she’s coming to the table less stressed. I’m definitely less stressed, too!”

Parents who anticipate anxiety feel less stressed about it when it shows up. Since kids feel parents’ anxiety, this is a big deal. Remember that kids don’t want to be anxious, and they can sense that it’s upsetting for you, which is scary for them. So when you respond like it’s breaking news, they panic even more. When you normalize it and expect the anxiety, it’s not quite so scary.

3. Right channel, volume too high

The problem is not that your child is afraid. The problem is that their brain is over-reacting to fear.

One way to think of anxiety is that our child is on the right channel, but the volume is too high. What they are thinking about makes sense. It’s true that the food might taste bad. It’s true that they might feel worried about eating too much. They may be worried about getting fat or eating something unhealthy.

Whatever fears they have make sense to them right now. The problem is that the volume is up way too high. Instead of having a thought and moving on like a healthy brain would, their anxious amygdala blows up and overreacts.

This video provides a great overview of how this works:

Sounds familiar …

You might recognize this response in yourself. As soon as you sit down and you can tell that your child doesn’t want to eat, your amygdala immediately jumps to the fear that they are going to die if they don’t eat. Of course you are worried, and you have every reason to be.

At the same time, missing a single meal is not the end of the world. Both things are true: you are afraid, and this single meal your child is refusing right now is not a life-or-death situation. (If a single meal is life-threatening, then stop reading and take your child to the Emergency Room!)

What I am saying is that the channel is right – the fear makes sense, but the volume is way too loud.

Calm the amygdala

High-volume anxiety means our amygdala is freaking out. Once our amygdala freaks out, it’s impossible to be rational and effective. Until we calm our amygdala down, we’re not going to believe that our child is safe, and we’re not going to be able to help our child eat.

Likewise, until our child’s amygdala calms down and stops shouting, they’re not going to be able to eat.

Don’t try to talk your child out of their anxiety and into eating until you sense that the volume is lower and their amygdala is calmer. When you try to reason at high volume, it’s like screaming into a speaker blasting Iron Maiden. Nobody can hear you. No matter how perfect your words are, you won’t accomplish anything. You will, however, get exhausted and hoarse.

Your job is not to convince your child that they’re on the wrong channel. Your job is to help them lower the volume of their amygdala so they can figure that out for themselves how to eat.

emotional regulation

4. Say less, be more

Most of us respond to anxiety by using language and words. We desperately want to help our child feel better and eat a healthy meal. So we try to use our words to convince them to eat. We think that if we say just the right thing, it will fix the problem. But remember that until their amygdala lowers its volume, we will not succeed. The amygdala does not respond to language. It responds to feelings.

We are hard-wired from birth to respond to our parents’ internal state of mind. We are highly attuned to our parents’ feelings. That means that what’s going on emotionally for you matters to your child more than anything you say.

Don’t get into debates about the value of the meal, the number of calories, and whether it is healthy or not. Don’t get sucked into discussions of how much is enough, how their stomach feels right now, or anything else. You don’t want to get into an argument about what’s on the plate or the fact that there is a plate. You will never win a debate with an amygdala.

So what do you do instead?

You need to find a calm place inside of yourself to accept the anxiety your child is in. If you can find a way to believe that their anxiety will not kill them (or you!) and that it will pass like clouds in the sky, they will pick up on your emotional state and their amygdala will calm down.

Think of yourself as a solid boulder in the ocean of your child’s emotions. No matter how hard it storms, you stay steady. Trust that your child will get through their anxiety and that they will be OK.

Sit with them while they rage and storm. Be a calm and loving presence in the face of their anxiety. Let them know that you care, but that you will not get into arguments about the value of food and eating. You know they are anxious right now, and you are going to sit with them through the anxiety.

What to say

Here are some things you can say when they start to try and engage you in a debate:

  • That may be true, but right now we’re just going to sit here so that your amygdala can settle down.
  • I hear what you’re saying, and I know you’re feeling very anxious. For now, we’re just going to sit here together and wait for our amygdalae to chill out.
  • I understand that you’re afraid, so let’s just accept that right now. I’m all right with all your feelings.
  • I know that when you yell at me, it means you’re feeling anxious. It’s OK – I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.

Your calm, loving presence will help calm their amygdala. Your refusal to engage in debate and steady belief that food is good and healthy will help them know that you expect them to eat. You don’t have to tell them that you want them to eat – they know what you want. Don’t engage with the anxiety, and instead let them feel it like a passing storm.

This takes practice and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself!

5. Celebrate successful anxiety resolution

Remember that anxiety is not breaking news. That means that getting through one meal does not mean the next one will be easy. It just means that the next meal is very likely to have anxiety as well. Try to never be surprised by anxiety.

It takes patience, time, and compassion to resolve anxiety, but it helps to have hope. This is why celebrating successful anxiety resolution can help. It reminds everyone that this is a process that you are all learning.

The goal is not to never experience anxiety, but rather to endure anxiety without actually dying (which is what anxiety feels like). Anxiety always resolves.

Journal ideas

Get a journal or a calendar, and take a few minutes together to write a quick recap of anxiety events. For example:

  • I sat down at the table, and I thought I was going to die. Seriously, my anxiety was HUGE. Mom and Dad sat with me. I started to feel a little better.
  • Dad called me to dinner and I fell down on the floor and refused to get up. I was so MAD. Mom sat with me on the floor. It took a while, but it passed. And it really wasn’t comfortable on the floor 😉
  • Mom served mac and cheese and I felt so ANGRY. I cried and yelled and told her that she was so mean. Mom put the plate down in the kitchen and sat with me while I calmed down. Then we tried again and the mac and cheese was actually pretty good.

Notice that we’re allowing the child to talk about the anxiety and how it felt. Anxiety is big and scary. It’s terrifying and enormous. People go to the emergency room for anxiety symptoms because it is so hard to endure.

But like a huge thunderstorm, anxiety never lasts forever. So let your child acknowledge the pain of having anxiety as well as recognize that as big as it gets, it always passes. If it’s possible to add some humor in the retelling, that may help lighten the mood and laugh a little together.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: But isn’t this catering to the anxiety?

A: This is catering to your child’s biological need to be in a state of homeostasis in order to eat. I know that most of us were raised in environments when feeling feelings wasn’t allowed, but when you have a child who has an eating disorder you simply must recognize that emotional literacy is your number one goal to support their recovery. Trying to shut down anxiety, ignore it, or treat it as if it’s bad is only going to hurt recovery.

Q: This is so much work! Will I have to do this every single time we eat?

A: I know it’s so much work, and I’m so sorry that you have to experience food and eating anxiety. It’s very stressful. Luckily, you can learn to regulate your own emotions, which will reduce stress for everyone. And your child is in therapy, so they’re learning emotional regulation skills, too. Over time and with proper treatment, you will be better-regulated, your child’s anxiety will reduce, the eating disorder will recede, and you will not have to put so much effort into every meal. But for now, yeah. It’s a lot of work.

Q: That’s all fine, but what if they still don’t eat?

A: This is a question that you have to work on with your child’s treatment team. The point of this article is to help parents who have kids who are eating sometimes, but feel tremendous anxiety around food and eating. If your child is truly not eating and is deep in their anorexia behaviors and medically unstable, then they need a higher level of care. This article is not intended to replace any professional care – it’s only intended to help make mealtimes less stressful, which is good for everyone’s appetite.

A final note

Having a child with anxiety is scary and frustrating. A child who is anxious about food is at high risk of having their anxiety create a major health problem. You are right to be scared.

But please know that anxiety is the most treatable mental disorder. There is tremendous hope for your child. While the eating disorder is multi-layered, food and eating anxiety often lie at the heart of it. Helping your child navigate anxiety is possibly the single most important skill you can learn right now.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How compassion can help your child in eating disorder recovery

compassion eating disorder recovery

Are you looking for ways to help your child recover from an eating disorder? If so, learning compassion is a great way to support eating disorder recovery.

Compassion for your child or loved one, and compassion for yourself will go a long way to helping everyone during the recovery process.

1. Giving compassion to your child in eating disorder recovery

Compassion for someone who is in eating disorder recovery looks like this:

I see you

This is a deep, deep need in all human beings, but it is especially important for a child to feel seen by her parents. She needs to be seen for who she is on the inside, not how she looks or behaves on the outside.

You are loved

You may think that your kids know this, but there is no limit to their need for love from you. It is a deep, driving force. Give them extreme love with words and actions.

I hear you

It can be hard to listen to a child who has disordered thoughts about her body and food. You want to fix them and make them go away. But just listen and acknowledge her thoughts and they will begin to loosen their hold on her mind.

I accept you

Unconditional love is when we are able to leave our judgement behind and love the person for who they are on the inside, regardless of their behavior. This doesn’t mean you have to like their behavior, but you will always love them.

Your feelings are valid

The trouble with feelings is that we become afraid that acknowledging them will make them permanent and intractable. But they aren’t. Feelings are real, and they should be free to come and go like clouds across a blue sky. Let your child talk about the clouds without fear or judgement.

I can handle this

A deep fear for anyone with a mental illness is that they will ruin all of their relationships and lose all love. As a parent, it is so important that you reassure your child that you can handle whatever happens with her, and that you will do your best to support and love her no matter what happens.


Why compassion helps with eating disorder recovery

Many people suffering from eating disorders feel compelled to repeat a self-destructive behavior despite evidence that it is harmful. Eating disorders can baffle people. They wonder “why can’t you just eat healthy?” But they are more complex than just food and weight.

Eating disorders are behavioral addictions that soothe and calm someone who feels anxious and out of control. Most people who have eating disorders also feel a sense of low self-worth. They seek to bolster their self-worth through food and exercise behaviors. They believe they will be more worthy when they achieve a certain weight.

Having compassion for a person who has an eating disorder means understanding that food and weight are just the tip of the iceberg. Compassion means that we understand that our child needs more than just food and eating advice. They need our affection, attention, and unconditional love.

The compassion mindset flips your thinking about the disorder from “this has to stop!” to “how can I support her towards change?”

Your child may need a team of professionals to recover. But compassion is something that you can give her for free, day in and day out. Practicing compassion will pay dividends for everyone in your family and your life.

2. Compassion for yourself when your child is in eating disorder recovery

Parents who have children who have eating disorders frequently suffer from compassion fatigue. They are exhausted by the care required to help their child heal.

Between doctors’ appointments, therapy appointments, and family therapy, you may be overwhelmed. But the answer to this is not to stop doing things or do less. The answer is often to give yourself compassion fo how hard this is.

Self-compassion is an incredible skill that most of us need to learn. It means that instead of trying to ignore our feelings, we allow them. You may have been raised to keep on a happy face. It’s possible your parents asked you to repress your negative emotions to keep the family peace. But emotional repression is unhealthy for everyone.

Instead, learn to give yourself compassion for all of your feelings, especially the negative ones.

The principles of self-compassion

Self Kindness

When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we often use harsh, critical internal language – “You’re so stupid and lazy, I’m ashamed of you!” We would be unlikely to say such things to a close friend, or even a stranger for that matter. With self-kindness, we are supportive and understanding toward ourselves. Our inner dialogues are gentle and encouraging rather than harsh and belittling. This means that instead of continually punishing ourselves for not being good enough, we kindly acknowledge that we’re doing the best we can. Similarly, when external life circumstances are challenging and difficult to bear, we soothe and nurture ourselves.

Common Humanity

The sense of common humanity recognizes that everyone fails, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong sometimes. We do not always get what we want and are often disappointed – either in ourselves or in our life circumstances. This is part of the human experience, a basic fact of life shared with everyone else on the planet. With self-compassion, we take the stance of a compassionate “other” toward ourselves, allowing us to take a broader perspective on our selves and our lives. By remembering the shared human experience, we feel less isolated when we are in pain. Self-compassion recognizes that we all suffer.


When we are mindful, we are experientially open to the reality of the present moment without judgment, avoidance, or repression. We must be willing to turn toward and experience our painful thoughts and emotions in order to embrace ourselves with compassion. While it might seem that our pain is blindingly obvious, many people do not acknowledge how much pain they’re in, especially when that pain stems from their own inner self-critic. Or when confronted with life challenges, people often get so lost in problem-solving mode that they do not pause to consider how hard it is in the moment. We recognize our thoughts and feelings in real-time.

Compassion will help all of you

Compassion is the key to navigating eating disorder recovery at home. While your child goes through treatment, every person in your family can benefit from more compassion.

Learn to give your child more compassion as they go through recovery. But don’t forget to give yourself compassion, too!

The “principles of compassion” are adapted from Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin D. Neff 

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Emotional repression, a gateway to eating disorders

emotional repression eating disorders

Emotional repression can be considered a gateway to eating disorders. Parents who are interested in preventing and healing eating disorders can help their kids feel their feelings.

For the first time in history, our kids are more actively stressed than we (their parents) are. Our kids are living with high levels of anxiety and fear. They worry about everything from their bodies to their grades. Their performance, their social standing, politics and climate change … just about everything can be worried about.

Our kids are living with levels of high anxiety, and it’s hurting them. It’s hurting their ability to feel good about themselves, and it’s hurting their life prospects. It’s also terrible for their health.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is highly correlated with every major disease. A lifetime of stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on our kids’ long term health. Most of us worry about whether they are getting enough fruits and vegetables. But the anxiety that runs in the background of their minds is actually determining their future health. While we worry about their weight, it is their anxiety that will actually impact their longevity and health.

One of the greatest sources of chronic stress is repressed emotions. This is because repressing emotions takes far more energy than feeling and fully processing emotions the first time they come around.

When we repress our emotions, we are kept in a never-ending process of keeping them repressed. Think of it this way: it takes a lot more energy to swim while trying to keep a beach ball submerged underwater. It’s much easier to simply allowing the beach ball to float alongside us as we swim.

How most parents respond to negative emotions

Most of us were raised to repress and downplay our emotions. We did this especially with negative emotions like anger, fear, and hurt. If we are female, we were taught by well-meaning parents, teachers, peers, and religious leaders that girls should be sweet, kind, and easygoing. We were taught in ways explicit and implicit that being loud, angry, and fearful is unattractive. And we learned that being attractive is essential to being a good girl. If we are male, we were taught that being sad and afraid is unacceptable.

As a result of this thorough training, most of us unconsciously train our own children in the same way. When she cries, we wipe her tears and tell her everything is fine. We shush her and tell her to quiet down and come back when she can control herself. When she tells us she is afraid, we dismiss her fears as irrational and tell her there’s nothing to worry about.

Almost none of us know that what we can and should actually do is allow our children to have all of their emotions, feelings and anxieties. What almost none of us know how to do is accept our kids’ emotions gracefully and without fear.

It’s not just parents – our society hates emotions

It should be said that most of us are not great at processing emotions. This is through no fault of our own – it’s hard to feel feelings when you have been taught to repress them your whole life.

But even if a parent is an excellent emotional processor who fully accepts their child’s emotions, our kids still live in a society that discourages negative emotions.

Even if we do everything to the best of our ability, our society will still teach our kids to play a closely defined gender role when it comes to emotions. Those who rebel and refuse to meet the standards of emotional repression are often ostracized and bullied.

Emotional repression and eating disorders

It’s no surprise, nor is it debatable that human beings of any gender are born with the ability and the freedom to fully express and process their emotions. It’s also not a secret that over time, because they are driven to pursue parental and societal love and acceptance, our kids learn to feel guilt and shame every time they feel a negative emotion. They learn to believe that negative emotions much be repressed because they are “not allowed” or “not appropriate.”

This is a very bad thing, because emotions are physical as much as mental. They never fail to exist – they only go underground, where, trapped, they wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.

Think of the beach ball that you’re trying to keep underwater. It takes tremendous energy to keep it down, and inevitably, every once in a while it explodes out of the water, and then we must scramble to get it back down again. The process is exhausting and endless, because no matter how hard we try, the ball will never stay underwater peacefully. It will fight for freedom.

Emotional repression is the perfect gateway for eating disorders. Keeping our emotions underground becomes easier if we find ways to numb and disconnect from our emotions. One of the best ways to do this is through coping mechanisms like eating disorders, self-harm, and addiction.

Eating disorders feel good

Something few parents who have kids who have eating disorders realize is that eating disorders feel good!

Eating disorders may look dangerous, but the person who has an eating disorder finds them to be an effective way to find peace from the emotional turmoil that is always roiling beneath the surface. Eating disorders are the way some people manage live in a world that requires us to repress our emotions.

Even if they know intellectually that eating disorders are unhealthy, and even if they feel shame over them because they believe they are “stupid” or “disgusting,” a person’s eating disorder still makes them feel better in the short-term. Eating disorders may look like monsters, but they feel like the ultimate caregiver.

The path to healing from an eating disorder

Emotional repression can contribute to eating disorders. This is why the path to healing from an eating disorder is an emotional one. Most people who have eating disorders must relearn what it means to feel emotions. They have hidden and repressed them for so long that they must slowly, gradually, rebuild our connection with their emotions.

The path to full emotional health requires us to actually feel. Sometimes for the first time in years or even decades. Feeling for the first time after an eating disorder is excruciating. Many people reach for their eating disorder behaviors again and again. Not because they want to. But because of the terror of facing their negative emotions without their preferred numbing agent.

When we have repressed our emotions and used our eating disorders to avoid feeling feelings, recovery means feeling again. And this unleashes physical sensations of panic similar to what we would feel if we were being chased by a tiger. I am not exaggerating. It’s really, really scary. Feeling feelings after an eating disorder is terrifying. But it is necessary in order to heal.

Over time, it gets easier. Once we learn to feel our emotions in a healthy, regular way, we no longer need to numb them away. We start to realize that trying to keep the beach ball underwater was an unnecessary use of our time, energy, and intellect. When we start swimming alongside the beach ball, we free up space, and the eating disorder is no longer necessary.

emotional regulation

How parents can help

Parents can help their children recover from an eating disorder by first learning to better process their own emotions. Emotional regulation is something few of us learned in childhood, and almost all parents need more of it. Also, our kids develop healthy emotional regulation when they first co-regulate with their parents’ calm, confident nervous system.

The best and fastest way to do this is to work with a qualified therapist or coach. They can help you learn to regulate yourself and co-regulate with your child.

Next, parents can help their kids recover by accepting and allowing their kids to experience all emotions. Learn emotional first aid. When your kids’ fear, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions arise, let them. Don’t try to stop them. Be there, as steady as a rock. Allow your child’s emotions to surround you without fear of being swept away. It’s exhausting to do this work for your child. And it takes practice, but there is nobody who can do it better than you. It is, quite possibly, the greatest gift any of us can give to our children.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.