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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.

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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 disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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A recipe for soothing your child with love instead of food

When your child is upset, sad, anxious, depressed, or any other negative feeling, it’s perfectly natural to think about food as a way to make them feel better. Who hasn’t thought about offering ice cream, a favorite meal, or a visit to Starbucks as a cure for the blues?

Most of us have used food as a form of soothing and nurturing when our kids are down and celebrating or rewarding them when they are up. There’s a good reason for this: food is the first way we nurture and respond to our child’s needs, but we need to be careful to not become over-reliant on food as a way to show our kids we love them.

Think back: the very first time your child was upset, you used food to soothe them (with either a bottle or breast). That’s exactly how the parent-child bond begins. There is nothing wrong with the instinct to soothe our kids with nourishing food. But this natural instinct can go awry if food becomes the primary way that we soothe and recognize our children.

What kids really need

Our children are deeply feeling individuals. They look to us, their parents, as a source of emotional regulation as well as a source of nourishment, nurturing, and love. While it’s OK to incorporate food into a soothing or celebratory experience, we should never mistake food as a substitute for our thoughtful attention.

What our kids really need is our undivided, nonjudgemental attention.

What our kids really need is our unwavering acceptance of them as whole, worthy human beings whom we love deeply and consistently.

To meet their needs, we need to approach them with love, compassion, and kindness. Most of the time they do not need us to give them anything more, with the exception of kind words such as:

  • You are awesome
  • I’m so proud of you
  • I like being with you
  • I want to know more about you
  • I like spending time with you
  • I want to care for you
  • I want to keep you safe
  • I love you
  • I hear you
  • I’m here for you

How to give our kids what they need

Giving our kids ice cream when they’ve done something we approve of or chocolate when they’re down is not the same as giving them what they need emotionally. To meet our kids’ emotional needs, we must spend time with them and give them our full attention. Here is how we can do this:

1. Remove distractions: turn off the TV, put your phone on airplane mode, and move away from your computer and other devices. This should be required for any parent-child relationship. It is very hurtful to your child when you look at texts or are otherwise distracted when you are interacting with them. This goes both way – your kid should do the same.

2. Pay attention to non-verbal cues: watch your child’s body language, their tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues to really understand what’s going on. Most kids will not answer direct questions about why they are upset, but if we watch them carefully we can intuitively understand how they are feeling and what they need from us.

3. Mirror them: match your child’s posture, expressions, nonverbal cues, language, and other mannerisms to let them know you are on the same plane as them. Mirroring a person is a form of deep connection because it makes the person feel safe on a subconscious level.

4. Reflect back: rather than asking a lot of questions, which can be overwhelming, reflect what you hear them say. So if they say “I hate Mary – she was so mean to me today!” Instead of saying something like “you need to stop caring so much about what other people think about you,” say “it sounds like Mary wasn’t very nice to you.” This tiny difference makes a huge impact and helps your child feel heard rather than controlled.

5. Show interest: encourage the moment to last longer by showing interest in whatever your child is telling you. We show interest by making eye contact and using our faces to show that we are listening. Raising our eyebrows, squeezing our eyes shut, and saying things like “oooooh!” and “ugh!” can show our child that we are really listening and will help them open up and say more.

6. Don’t interrupt: give your child the floor. Don’t interrupt their story or commentary even if you feel you have something really valuable to contribute or think you really need to ask a question to understand what’s going on. If it’s worth saying, then it can wait. Allow your child to vent, rage, or lament for as long as they need to without interrupting them. Wait for a break in their conversation, and then look for a sign that they want to hear something from you.

7. Don’t give advice: 90% of the time our responses should be reflective rather than directive. Avoid telling them what to do or how to handle a situation unless they specifically ask for your opinion. Most of the time, our kids are very capable of solving their own problems, but they need us to give them a safe place to process their various feelings. Ideally, wait for your child to ask your advice before you try to give any.

How we treat kids becomes how they treat themselves

The way we treat our children will become their inner conscience and the voice they use inside their heads when things go wrong. This is why we have to think carefully about how we respond to difficult emotional states like fear, anger, sadness, and more.

Our voices become the voices in our kids’ heads.

Responding to our children with unconditional acceptance, listening, and kind words will teach our child to respond to their own needs with the same compassion.

For example, when our college student gets a low grade on a test, they may respond by eating an entire carton of ice cream, or they may respond by processing their feelings of fear and shame and then meet with the professor to learn about how they can do better next time.

When our adult child gets reprimanded at work, they may respond by eating an XL pizza and drinking a bottle of wine while watching Netflix, or they may go out for pizza with a trusted friend and talk about their work experience and troubleshoot the situation.

Which would you prefer for your grown child?

Helping kids build emotional toolboxes

There is nothing wrong with using food as part of a soothing ritual. Food is inherently soothing to humans. But what we want to think about is that our child has an emotional toolbox that they will use to soothe their negative emotional states.

If the only tool in their toolbox is food, they are missing out on many other self-soothing techniques.

The way we parent makes a huge impact on our child’s emotional toolbox. We want to provide them with compassion and acceptance and model thoughtful listening. This will help them avoid becoming overly-reliant on a single tool like food or other forms of consumption like alcohol, drugs, self-harm, shopping, gambling, sex, etc.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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The link between depression, eating disorders, and being female in western industrialized cultures

There is a strong link between being depressed, having an eating disorder, and being female in a western industrialized country. Here are some facts about these conditions:

1. Females are twice as likely as males to be depressed, and the vast majority of eating disorder patients are female.

2. The depression sex difference emerges at puberty, and eating disorders emerge at puberty.

3. The depression sex difference is only found in western countries, and eating disorders are present in western countries and far less common/virtually absent in non-western countries.

4. There is more depression today, and there are more eating disorders today.

5. The average age of onset for depression is younger now than in the past, and the average age of onset for eating disorders is younger now than in the past.

Because of these correlations, it has been proposed that there is a relationship between the thin ideal that permeates western cultures, eating disorders and depression. Some studies report that episodes of depression precede the onset of the eating disorder and even that eating disorder behaviors are an attempt to combat depression.

In such a case, a person who is depressed subconsciously attempts to modify their mood state by utilizing eating disorder behaviors such as restriction, binge eating, purging, and over-exercising. By engaging in these behaviors, a person may feel a sense of taking corrective action to improve their life circumstances.

The thin ideal

The cultural ideal of hard-to-achieve thinness (the “thin ideal”) for women could be a driver of both depression and eating disorders. There are two ways this can happen.

First, if a girl perceives her body as not meeting the thin ideal, body dissatisfaction can arise. Since a very small proportion(~5%) of female bodies can meet the thin ideal without extreme control and modification, body dissatisfaction can occur at any body size, shape, and weight.

Second, there is a powerful belief that a thin body is the only way a woman can be attractive to others. The need to be seen as attractive to others is an element of self-esteem, and thus a pervasive sense of being unattractive (due to higher weight than is deemed “attractive”) may lead to eating disorder behaviors. This may also explain the observed trend of depression and eating disorder onset during puberty, a time when the body is changing at the exact same time as a desire to be attractive to others increases.

It has been shown that people who have eating disorders have high levels of body dissatisfaction coupled with low self-esteem and feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy. It has also been shown that people who are depressed tend to have higher levels of body dissatisfaction and feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy.

Diet culture

This is where diet culture comes into the picture since dieting is strongly associated with body dissatisfaction and feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy. First, dieting causes extreme psychic and physical stress, which can drastically impact mood states, leading to depression.

Second, dieting fails 95% of the time. A person may lose weight but will regain it all plus more almost every time. This failure is almost always attributed to personal behaviors rather than the fact that diets are proven to lead to weight gain. Feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy based on weight regain after weight loss almost always occur.

It has also been observed that one in four people who diet will develop an eating disorder. This may be a natural response to the proven weight cycling inherent in dieting. A person can quickly notice that unless they take extreme measures, they cannot control their weight. Those extreme measures are the primary eating disorder behaviors of restriction, purging, and over-exercising. Binge eating is a natural and primal response to all of these behaviors.

Lack of control

Western cultures believe that weight is something that can be controlled, and yet the evidence points in the exact opposite direction. Research has shown for more than 50 years that intentional weight loss almost always leads to weight gain. This disconnect between a cultural belief and the reality of weight control leads to feelings of failure.

Attempting to control weight, which is a fruitless effort, leads women to feel more dissatisfied with their bodies. Repeat dieters report lower self-esteem than do non-dieters, which can lead to both depression and eating disorders. In a cruel twist of fate, the more a person diets, the higher their weight climbs. Additionally, many people who are depressed turn to food to soothe their depression. This can create an endless and lifelong cycle of body dissatisfaction, dieting, and depression.

Puberty changes everything

Body dissatisfaction is a symptom of both depression and eating disorders, and both are more common in females and typically arise during puberty.

During puberty, the female body changes, often dramatically. The thin ideal resembles a pre-pubescent girl (flat stomach, long legs, slender hips, flat chest). The process of puberty includes weight gain and the addition of new curves and rolls, which can be destabilizing for many females. Puberty takes girls further from the thin ideal while it typically brings boys closer to the masculine ideal.

Several studies have noted that girls become increasingly less satisfied with their bodies as they progress through puberty. At every age, girls are less satisfied with their bodies than boys. Girls also have higher rates of body dysmorphia and the belief that their bodies are larger than they actually are.

Protecting females

The trends linking our societal beliefs, being female, depression and eating disorders need to be openly addressed in order to reverse worrying trends of increasing rates of both depression and eating disorders. Both depression and eating disorders are increasing, and beginning at younger ages. There are many societal factors to be considered in these conditions in western females, but one known factor is the thin ideal.

Some actions we should take to protect females from higher risk of depression and eating disorders include:

1. Talk to girls about the thin ideal and its dangers.

2. Talk about the devastating impact of dieting on the body and mental health.

3. Seek ways to show girls the diversity of body size, shape and weight in the real world compared to what we see on television, social media, advertising, etc.

4. Don’t ever diet, or allow dieting in your home.

5. Speak up against companies that use Photoshopping, editing, and other techniques to take an already unrealistic body ideal to new extremes.

6. Demand that companies feature diverse body types in advertising and in entertainment programs.

7. Support companies that promote body size diversity in their advertising, social media, etc.

8. Learn about Health at Every Size

Also, monitor for signs of depression and eating disorders, especially during puberty. We have two quizzes available. The first is Does My Child Have an Eating Disorder? and can be taken by a parent. The second is an adaptation of Burn’s Depression Checklist, which should be taken by the person who is being evaluated for depression.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.


Reference: McCarthy, M., The Thin Ideal, Depression and Eating Disorders in Women, Journal of Behavior Research and Therapy, 1990

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Self-esteem, body image, and eating disorders – what parents can do to help

Eating disorders are strongly associated with low self‐esteem and poor body image. [1, 2] Self-esteem and body image must be improved in order to heal fully from an eating disorder because we can’t change a behavior until we change the predisposing factors that drive that behavior. [3]

If we tell a child that she’s beautiful and doesn’t need to starve herself anymore, we are unlikely to help her recover from an eating disorder because we have maintained the focus on her body and done nothing to change her underlying beliefs about her body and her self.

We tend to think of girls when we think of body image problems, but poor body image impacts boys, too. Rates of male eating disorders are increasing rapidly, alongside studies finding that men’s bodies are increasingly being objectified in the media. Studies find that males display substantial body dissatisfaction and that this dissatisfaction is closely associated with eating disorders and low self-esteem. [4]

While we may think the best way to help our child recover from an eating disorder is to educate them about the dangers of eating disorder behaviors, what we really need to do is help our kids see themselves as worthy of love and respect regardless of their eating habits, weight, exercise patterns, or any other behavior. [5]

This is good news for parents. We don’t have to learn everything about nutrition and body image to have a positive impact on a child’s eating disorder recovery. We just need to learn how to help our child see themselves as worthy, and this is something that parents are uniquely positioned to do well.

But please use caution – parents can cause unintentional harm if they approach self-esteem automatically and without research. We need to learn about the words and behaviors that actually increase our children’s self-esteem rather than acting on instinct, not because we are bad people, but just because we live in a culture that inflicts accidental psychological damage on a daily basis.

Steps to improve a child’s self-esteem

Here are some things parents can do to improve a child’s self-esteem:

1. Offer choices. Help your child experience “agency” – the ability to influence their own life outcomes – by not limiting them to one option. They may need to do homework, but they can choose the order in which to do their homework. They may need to take out the trash by 9 p.m., but they can choose when they do it before then.

2. Don’t jump in. It can be tempting to jump in and solve problems for our kids or give them step by step instructions for solving a problem. This is especially hard when we are trying to help a child recover from an eating disorder. But self-esteem comes from believing that you can accomplish tasks by yourself. We have to be patient and let our kids solve their own problems whenever possible.

3. Work against perfectionism. Perfectionism is an underlying factor in many eating disorders. Perfectionism is the belief that if I do something wrong I will lose love and admiration. Parents can help kids recover from perfectionism by openly acknowledging mistakes without shame or blame and reminding kids who are suffering because they made a mistake that nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes.

4. Praise your child’s positive actions. Our kids crave our praise, but it’s important to avoid common praise pitfalls. Praise like “you’re so talented!” rings hollow and also demonstrates a fixed mindset: either you’re talented or you’re not. Parents should embrace the growth mindset by praising their children for how they approach difficult things in life. And it’s important to never praise a child for their body size or eating behaviors.

5. Give them responsibility. Even in the midst of eating disorder treatment, appropriate household chores should be a part of your child’s life. Participating in the household chores helps children feel they are competent and bolsters their problem-solving skills. Be careful about how you set this up – we don’t want to constantly remind our child of their responsibility – nagging has a negative impact on self-esteem.

6. Give them one-on-one time. Each child wants to feel unique and special in their parents’ eyes. Take time to spend time alone with your child at least once per week. Even if they resist your efforts, keep showing up. Our kids need us more than we (or they!) know, even as they grow up. Don’t let your child’s social schedule get in the way of time for you to connect with them and build your parent-child bond. Being close with a parent has a significant impact on lifetime self-esteem.

Unconditional acceptance

A child must work towards self-esteem on many levels, but a parent can impact a child’s self-esteem by providing consistent acceptance and reassurance. It’s important to know that “acceptance” is not the same as “approval.” For example, you may not approve of your child’s eating disorder, but you can still accept your child as they are. Here are some statements we can use to demonstrate unconditional acceptance:

  1. I love you.
  2. I admire you.
  3. I accept you.
  4. I hear you.
  5. I believe you.
  6. I understand.
  7. I don’t need you to be perfect.

The only caveat is that you need to actually believe these things when you say them. Kids have a fine-tuned bullshit meter, so make sure you are speaking the truth. If you can’t say these things truthfully, then please seek help from a therapist or counselor. You may have some personal work you need to undergo before you can provide your child with unconditional acceptance.

Also, never add the word “but” to any of these statements. When we say “I love you, but I wish you would take the trash out,” we are suggesting that our love is conditional on our child’s behavior. The whole point of saying these things is to be unconditional in our love and approval.

“Loving someone fully and without judgment is the opposite of being a weak pushover. It requires tremendous strength, fortitude, emotional maturity, and self-awareness.” — Andrea Miller, Radical Acceptance: The Secret to Happy, Lasting Love

Avoid body image pitfalls

As we help a child build stronger self-esteem and body image, we must avoid giving body-based feedback. Here are a few rules about giving feedback to a child who has low self-esteem and negative body image:

  1. Do not provide feedback on a body part (e.g. your legs are so strong! You have such a tiny waist! Your biceps are so big!)
  2. Do not provide feedback on body weight (e.g. you’ve gained weight! You’ve lost weight!)
  3. Do not provide feedback on physical appearance (e.g. that’s so slimming on you! You look fat in that!)
  4. Avoid feedback on body and eating behaviors (e.g. you finished everything! You ran every day this week!)
  5. Avoid the words “good” and “bad” (e.g. you’re such a good student! You ate really badly yesterday.)

To increase self-esteem in a child who has an eating disorder we must focus on the non-body and non-eating or exercise aspects of our child’s life. We also want to avoid triggering their desire to be “good” via behaviors. We want our child to believe they are inherently good, regardless of what they do or how they appear.

Positive feedback with the growth mindset

Giving positive feedback can be difficult so it can be helpful to review information about the “Growth Mindset” that many teachers are learning to help children go from feeling fixed and stuck to feeling they can accomplish hard things.

Fixed MindsetGrowth Mindset
You are so creative.I love how you approached that project with so much patience and thought.
You are a great swimmer.It’s great how you make time for swim practice.
You’re so smart.You really studied for this test – I’m proud of you.
You’re so talented.It makes me happy to hear you practicing the violin every day.
You’re so athletic.You work so hard at soccer, and being on the team seems to make you happy.
I knew you could do it.I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies until you finally got it.
You’re such a good friend.I love the way you showed up for your friend when she really needed you.

Remember that building a child’s self-esteem and body image is not about telling them they are great – it’s about building their own perception of themselves as worthy human beings. Self-esteem and positive body image can be influenced by a parent’s unconditional love and approval, but it ultimately has to come from within the person. This is a long-term effort. Invest time and energy in learning more about self-esteem and body image and just keep working towards it.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.


References

[1] Self‐esteem, eating problems, and psychological well‐being in a cohort of schoolgirls aged 15‐16: A questionnaire and interview study Eric J. Button Philippa Loan Jo Davies Edmund J. S. Sonuga‐Barke International Journal of Eating Disorders January 1997

[2] Self‐esteem, personality, and eating disorders: Baseline assessment of a prospective population‐based cohort, Pilar Gual Marta Pérez‐Gaspar Miguel Angel Martínez‐González Francisca Lahortiga Jokin de Irala‐Estévez Salvador Cervera‐Enguix, International Journal of Eating Disorders, March 2002

[3] e.g., body image; Bandura, 1986

[4] Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms Roberto Olivardia, Harrison G. Pope Jr., John J. Borowiecki III, and Geoffrey H. Cohane Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 2004

[5] Garner, 1985; Carter, Stewart, Dunn, & Fairburn, 1997; Mann et al., 1997

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Why is my child emotionally withdrawn from me?

why is my child emotionally withdrawn?

Have you noticed that your child has become emotionally withdrawn? Are they spending less time with you, and not sharing their life with you? When a child is emotionally withdrawn, it is often a sign that their parents need to learn some new parenting skills. Emotional withdrawal in the parent-child relationship can be a red flag for eating disorders and other dangerous behaviors.

The most powerful emotional shield our children utilize when they are suffering is emotional withdrawal. They may withdraw slowly or abruptly. The overall goal of the withdrawal is to protect themselves from perceived danger in their relationship with us, their parents.

How does a child emotionally withdraw?

A child can become emotionally withdrawn using many different barriers, including:

  • Physical isolation (e.g. always in a different room, behind a closed door, etc.)
  • Emotional isolation (not sharing emotional intimacy with family members)
  • Over-committing to outside interests such as friends, activities, and school
  • Angry outbursts, verbal attacks, and abuse
  • Stonewalling and being uncommunicative
  • Sarcasm, eye rolling, slammed doors, etc.
  • Crying
  • Hiding behind electronic screens (e.g. social media, gaming, etc.)
  • Saying “I’m fine” when it’s obvious they are not fine

Withdrawal is a very common tactic used by children who are experiencing emotional disruption. This includes when they have or are developing an eating disorder. A child who is protected by withdrawal is less likely to be “caught.” Thus the eating disorder is at lower risk of exposure.

Why withdraw?

Withdrawal is an emotional tactic used by people who are afraid they will not get their needs met in their most important relationships. Rather than confronting this fear, they shut down and pull away from the people who love them. Emotional withdrawal is the execution of the thought “I’ll dump you before you can dump me.” The person who is withdrawing desperately wants connection. But they are deeply convinced that the person from whom they are withdrawing is unable to love them completely as-is. They may be afraid that:

  • If you knew the real me (all of me), you wouldn’t love me
  • You don’t really love me
  • You don’t understand or respect me

It is important for parents to understand this. Typically when a child withdraws, the parent experiences the withdrawal as a rejection. But in fact withdrawal is a desperate cry for attention.

Many times when our kids withdraw from a relationship with us, we feel the sting of rejection. We think things like:

  • My child doesn’t respect me
  • My child doesn’t need me anymore
  • If my child wanted me around, they would treat me differently
  • I can’t do anything right with my child
  • My child gets everything they need from their friends

Unfortunately, this causes us to withdraw from our kids, which creates a self-perpetuating loop

  • The child is afraid their parent won’t understand, so they withdraw.
  • The parent feels rejected, so they withdraw or begin clinging.
  • The child feels justified in believing their parent can’t understand them or meet their needs.

The result is that the child and parent both end up feeling unloved, hurt, abandoned, and uncared for. It’s deeply painful for both sides.

When withdrawal gets dangerous

There is a difference between healthy independence and emotional withdrawal. Our children seek healthy independence by gradually doing more and more on their own without seeking our prior opinion or approval. Healthy independent children do not feel ashamed of what they are doing and are not avoiding talking to their parents about these activities. In most cases, healthy independent children will share their explorations into independence in at least general terms with their parents.

When a child is withdrawing, they often have a sense of shame and sneaking while doing things outside of their parent’s view. This is especially true of a child who is exploring eating disorder behaviors, self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, and promiscuous sexual activity.

They feel uneasy while doing these things because they believe that their parents would not approve or could not understand. These activities provide short-term relief for their suffering. And the only way they can see to continue pursuing is to erect a wall between themselves and their parents.

Not all kids who withdraw are doing the dangerous things listed above. But withdrawal from the family is a requirement for most people who engage in these behaviors. This is why withdrawal should be taken very seriously.

Reconnecting after withdrawal

Emotional withdrawal erodes the trust and security that underlies a healthy relationship. Our children require a connection with us in order to feel safe and secure as independent individuals. All kids long to feel loved, cared about, respected, and valued by their parents. When a child withdraws, it is usually a sign that they need their parents to learn some new parenting skills. 

If you sense that your child is withdrawing, take some time to think critically about the withdrawal patterns. Consider and write down:

  • What behaviors am I noticing that suggest my child is withdrawing from me?
  • How do I know that this is withdrawal and not healthy independence?
  • How is my child most often relating to me, and how is it different from 6 months ago?
  • Has anything changed in our family lately that may explain the withdrawal?
  • Has anything changed in my child’s life lately that may explain the withdrawal?
  • How am I responding to my child’s withdrawal? Am I doing things like crying, walking away, yelling, etc.?
  • How does my child’s withdrawal make me feel?
  • Are there times when my child is more open to me? When is my child least open to me? What patterns are there in the withdrawal behavior?
  • What are we fighting about most? OR What is the “elephant in the room” that we are avoiding?

Getting help when a child emotionally withdraws

When a child is emotionally withdrawn, parents struggle. Everything is harder. If possible, find a therapist, counselor, coach, friend, or partner who can help. You need to talk and process your feelings about your child’s emotional withdrawal.

Your feelings are valid and important. Your feelings need space and you need to heal. Look especially closely at your reactive emotions to your child’s withdrawal. It hurts. Be there for yourself and care for your deep, vulnerable, primary emotions that are being hurt by your child’s withdrawal.

Process all of this with another adult before you address it with your child. The best way for you to help your child is to recognize that withdrawal is not a rejection of you, but an invitation to find another way of relating to your child. This situation requires you to tap into your parent side instead of your childlike, reactionary side. Your child needs you to be strong and stable for them.

What your child needs to hear

Your child needs to hear things like:

  • I value your opinion
  • I respect you
  • I am willing to talk about hard things with you
  • I care about you
  • I’m not going to get critical like I have been in the past
  • I’m going to stay right here. I’m not going to leave you like I have been doing when things get hard
  • I’m going to hang in here and fight for our relationship
  • I’m going to interrupt our pattern of withdrawal from each other

It may take a while for this to work. You are trying to break a pattern to which you have both become accustomed. It’s scary to get vulnerable after withdrawal. As parents, we need to keep showing up in a soft yet strong way. We need to continually show our child that we are fighting for our relationship with them. We have to prove – with anti-withdrawal behavior – that we are committed to them no matter what they say or do. Over time, we can replace the withdrawal cycle with supportive, loving, and nurturing parenting.

Getting help with withdrawal

It is often very difficult and sometimes impossible for a parent to reconnect with a withdrawn child without help. Don’t hesitate to seek professional support from a therapist, counselor, or coach. You should definitely seek professional help in the following cases:

  • Your child refuses to engage with you and keeps you at arm’s length.
  • You learn your child was or is currently engaging in dangerous behaviors. This may include an eating disorder, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, self-harm, etc.
  • You suspect your child was or may be engaging in dangerous behaviors. These may include an eating disorder, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, self-harm, etc.
  • You are unable to engage with your child without yelling, crying, shutting down and/or leaving during difficult conversations.
  • After engaging with your child, you feel like you acted like a child.

An emotionally withdrawn child is harder to parent and harder to love. But it’s possible to overcome the withdrawal. Read more here: Do you kind of hate your teenager?


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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Scary things your child may say while having an anxiety attack and how to handle it

Anxiety is one of the main underlying conditions that occur alongside eating disorders, which means that if you have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s very helpful to learn about anxiety disorders and how loved ones can help someone through an anxiety attack.

If you are a parent who has no experience with anxiety disorders, then it can be helpful to understand that while everyone feel fear, stress, and anxiety on a normal basis, someone who has an anxiety disorder suffers on a much greater level, and the fear and worry do not go away, and often get worse over time. While someone who has normal fear will be able to identify a particular stressor causing the fear, those of us who have anxiety disorders feel a generalized sense of fear and panic that appears separate from any particular event or situation.

Not everyone who has an anxiety disorder experiences anxiety attacks (also called panic attacks), but those of us who do find ourselves feeling acute physical symptoms of anxiety. For many of us, our anxiety manifests in physical symptoms even when we have no idea what we’re worried about. The physical symptoms of panic can feel completely disconnected from our current life circumstances, and it can seem as if they are coming out of nowhere.

Since many of us feel our anxiety symptoms in our chests, an anxiety attack can feel very much like a heart attack or other major life-threatening event. Hence, many of us worry that we are going to die when we experience an anxiety attack. Everyone experiences anxiety attacks differently, and many of us will have different symptoms each time we have an anxiety attack. This makes it very difficult for loved ones to know how best to help us weather the storm.

Here are some common symptoms of an anxiety attack or panic attack:

1. Chest pain: One of the most notable symptoms of an anxiety attack is chest pain, heart palpitations, and an accelerated heart rate. Some people describe it as pressure on their chest, fluttering in their chest, stabbing pain in their chest, etc. These sensations are overwhelming and terrifying, and often fuel our anxiety attack since we believe we are under immediate threat of dying.

2. Sweating, trembling & shaking: Many times we sweat, tremble and shake during an anxiety attack. This may or may not be visible to our loved ones, but we feel a deep sense of discomfort over these sensations, as well as a deep lack of terrifying lack of control. As our mind races to make sense of these symptoms, we may demand that our body stops sweating, trembling and shaking RIGHT NOW! Unfortunately, such demands have no bearing on our anxiety, and often only serve to make it worse.

3. A sense of choking, shortness of breath & smothering: It is common to feel some level of constriction in our airways. This can increase our panic because we feel unable to access air at a normal level. During the anxiety attack, we believe that this restriction of air will continue and get worse, which can increase our anxiety attack symptoms. The fear of dying from lack of air feels very real.

4. Dizziness and Fainting: During an anxiety attack, our senses are overwhelmed with fear, which can overwhelm our sense of balance and even lead to a complete mental shut down in the form of passing out. Some of us have passed out in public, and in dramatic fashion, which adds to our experience of shame about our anxiety attack. Many times we have no idea that we are having a panic attack or that we are about to pass out until the moment it happens.

5. Fear of dying: Almost all of the sensations described above lead to a severe fear that we have lost control of our bodies and are “going crazy.” We sincerely believe this is a life-threatening event that will not resolve itself. Depending on the severity of our symptoms, we often believe that we are dying during an anxiety attack. Many of us have called 911 or had bystanders, employers and loved ones do so on our behalf. We frequently go to emergency rooms with the full belief that we are dying, only to be told that it’s “just” an anxiety attack.

The experience of having an anxiety attack is extremely terrifying. Never hesitate to take your child to the ER or call 911 if you feel afraid. Paramedics and ER doctors see anxiety attacks regularly, and will be able to identify whether there is something life-threatening going on vs. anxiety symptoms.

Unfortunately, some professionals are not very thoughtful when presenting the diagnosis of an anxiety attack, which can lead to shame and increased anxiety. Often a doctor’s diagnosis that “it’s just anxiety” can make us feel as if we have wasted everyone’s time and are pathetic and needy. This, of course, just increases our anxiety. This is why it’s so important for parents to understand panic attacks and help their children get through them and move on with minimal shame.

Here are some things parents should know about anxiety attack symptoms:

1. Timing: Panic attacks typically build in severity over the course of about 10 minutes or less. Those 10 minutes can be incredibly scary, but symptoms will subside gradually after they reach a peak.

2. Call for help if you need it: During an anxiety attack, your child will be in extreme distress. If you feel unable to handle the situation in any way and at any time, don’t hesitate to call 911 or go to the ER.

3. Acknolwedge how your child feels, and accept how bad it feels. It’s all right to say to your child that they may be having a panic attack. Say this in a calm, confident, accepting tone, and your child may find relief in having a name for their experience. Allow the anxiety symptoms to arise under your care and acceptance. Help your child name the symptoms, and write them down if that seems to help your child recognize that their feelings are real and valid. Don’t ask questions about why the anxiety is happening – many times we actually don’t know the cause of our anxiety attack until we have reflected after the event.

4. Calm them, but not by saying “calm down.” Telling someone who is having a panic attack to calm down can make the symptoms worse, because we desperately want to calm down, and feel guilty and more stressed if we perceive that you need us to hurry up. Instead, find a truly calm place within yourself. You may need to practice mindfulness to access this calm place quickly in the face of your child’s anxiety attack. When you can find calm during our storm, and hold confidence that the anxiety will pass and we will be OK, we will feel safer under your care.

5. Reassure them by saying that you are here for them. During panic attacks, many of us feel deeply ashamed of bringing anyone around us “down” with us. We often experience feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. It’s important for loved ones to assure someone who is having an anxiety attack that they can take all the time they need to recover, and that it’s absolutely no problem for you to sit there and be with them. Say things like “this is exactly where I want to be,” and “I am here for you as long as you need me” to help them understand your unconditional positive regard in the face of a debilitating anxiety attack.

6. Breathe with them. This only works if you have practiced some breathing exercises with your child in advance (which is a good idea). If you have not practiced breathing exercises, then skip this step for this anxiety attack, as it may cause irritation. If you have practiced breathing together, try some breathing exercises. We may push back or even become angry with you when you attempt this, but don’t take it personally – our anger is just the anxiety talking. Just try a few breaths together, listening and paying attention to whether it is helping. Consider downloading a deep breathing podcast on your phone that you can use to help both of you breathe during the panic attack.

7. Tools help some people recover from an anxiety attack. For example, some people find aromatherapy, a cold compress, a heavy blanket, a glass of cold water, or meditative music helpful. Some people find it helpful to listen to guided meditation or yoga nidra podcasts during an anxiety attack. Once you know your child has anxiety attacks, keep these tools on hand so you can pull them out as needed. For example, if smelling something helps, carry a small bottle of essential oils at all times. If listening to yoga nidra helps, then download a favorite podcast on both your own and your child’s phone. Be aware that these tools may work sometimes and not others. Try not to get frustrated or take it personally if a tool doesn’t work – just try something else, or just stay calm, attentive, and present for a while.

8. Medication may help your child recover faster, and may be the route recommended by their care team. If your child’s doctor has prescribed medication to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, then keep them avialable in various places around your home and other locations so that you have medication ready to go when necessary.

Once the anxiety attack seems to be coming to completion, your child may need to take a nap or at least rest for a while. Anxiety attacks are physically and emotionally draining, so don’t rush off to do something right away. If you have plans or are supposed to be somewhere, try to delay your arrival by at least an hour to provide time for recovery.

When your child appears to be fully recovered, set an appointment with a care provider to talk about the anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks can seriously impact your child’s eating disorder behaviors, so take every attack seriously and talk to your child’s treatment team so they know about it and can recommend a course of action.

Finally, check in with your child periodically about their anxiety levels. Especially in the days following an anxiety attack, your child may have residual symptoms. Many of us with anxiety hide our symptoms for fear of being a burden or being seen as weak, and parents can be of tremendous help by actively checking in and allowing us to acknowledge our anxiety symptoms without fear or judgement.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.


Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately.

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How to help someone you love who has a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder

It can be incredibly difficult to watch a loved one who has a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. Mental health conditions make it hard for your loved one to experience life. No matter how much you love the person, your love alone will not help them recover. The person you love will probably need some professional help from a trained therapist. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help! We came up with a video to help parents understand some ways they can help kids who are struggling with mental health conditions.

When you love someone, it’s usually easy to have a good time together. But when someone you love has a mental health condition, it can be hard to figure out what to do.

It’s hard because, to you, the world is the same, but for the person who is hurting, nothing feels good anymore. You want to help, but you can’t figure out what to do. It’s easy to feel hurt by the person who is hurting. This is not fair at all. But you can help make things better.

Here is a metaphor to help explain how you can help.

The person you love is enjoying life and having a great time. There is a small puddle of sadness in her life, but it’s not a big deal. Then, one day, she falls into her puddle of sadness. Her puddle of sadness grows, and now she can’t get out.

A boat comes along to help her. She gets in the boat, and now she’s out of the water. But the puddle has grown into a lake, and the boat keeps her stuck in the middle.

You come along and see your loved one in the middle of the lake. You ask how you can help, but she can’t hear you. You realize that this situation is pretty bad.

But you are enthusiastic and optimistic. You try to jump in and carry her out of the lake. But this is her lake, and you can’t pull her out of it.

You feel confused and frustrated, but you keep trying. You bring her tools to paddle out of the lake, but she can’t reach them. You’re starting to panic a little, but you keep trying. You try more things, but nothing seems to help. You feel stuck and worried.

Then you talk to someone who gives you a good idea. You start to collect materials to build a small dock out into the lake. You build the dock out of patience, acceptance, understanding, empathy, and validation. Then you sit down on the end of the dock, put out your hand, and wait.

When she talks, you listen without trying to fix anything. You encourage her to talk about her feelings. And you stay there even when she can’t answer

When she feels ready, you stay right there. When she feels afraid, you validate her fears. You show her that you can tolerate her fear, and you are not going anywhere.

As she gets closer, you stay right there because you believe she can do this. And then, when she makes it onto the edge of the dock, you stay with her still. You give her empathy and acceptance.

The lake starts to shrink.

You stay there with her.

And then, one day, she feels better! The lake is back to being a little puddle, and she is outside of the puddle. Your support allowed her to find her own way out.

And now she is stronger than ever.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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The dangers of a “too-nice” family culture

dangers of a too nice family

Your family may appear to be very happy. Everyone sees you as a cohesive and loving family unit. But, believe it or not, families can be “too nice.” Families that are “too nice” tend to raise kids who:

Find out how to spot a “too nice” family, why it causes problems, and what you can do to change.

The family facade

Your children are polite. They perform well in school or sports (or both). At least one parent shows up to school events. You maintain a nice home, good jobs, and enjoy spending time with a social, religious, or community groups. From all outward appearances, your family is just about as perfect as it gets. You feel safe in the knowledge that you have done your job as a parent very well.

But then one of your kids gets an eating disorder, and you are baffled. How is it possible that your happy, loving family could have a child like this? You’re shocked they’re suffering from such destructive (and, you can’t help but think, distasteful) behavior pattern?

All of your feelings are valid and worthy of exploration. Having a child who has an eating disorder is a deeply confusing thing for a parent to deal with. It can be especially so when you thought that your family was functioning just fine and everyone was healthy.

When your child enters treatment for an eating disorder, things get even more confusing. During family therapy, your child may tell you things about your parenting that you never expected and don’t understand. You thought you had a happy, loving family. But your child who has an eating disorder may say that the family is superficial and lacks emotional depth. You simply can’t understand what you are supposed to do with this information.

First, take a deep breath. You are not alone. In fact, many families who encounter eating disorders run into this challenge. Their “nice” family narrative is turned inside out. You can’t for the life of you figure out what went wrong.

The “too nice” family

There are some unintended consequences when a family is “too nice.” What happens in “too nice” families is that members become highly attuned to how everyone else feels. They tend to be especially tuned into the parents.

The family narrative that everything is just fine becomes something to which the children feel they must live up to. Deviation from the family norm risks being ostracized. In this environment, children automatically and unconsciously keep their true opinions and feelings to themselves. They fear rocking the boat.

Children in “too nice” families learn on a deeply unconscious level which behaviors will earn them love and safety within their families. They also know what will result in becoming an outsider. This is dangerous because the child’s psyche interprets exclusion from the family group as a catastrophic life event. Being ostracized must be avoided at all costs. The child unconsciously sacrifices their own true self in exchange for belonging.

Unfortunately, the costs are very high when a child unconsciously represses their personal feelings and opinions in deference to the group-oriented behavior in a “too nice” family. When children learn to keep their feelings undercover, they internalize the concept that there is something wrong with them. They think: everyone else in the family seems just fine. But I feel different. There must be something wrong with me.

It’s the opposite of “on purpose”

It’s important to pause here and specify that “too nice” families do not intentionally or explicitly force their children to repress their individual feelings. It is often an unconscious side effect of parenting. Of course parents wish for peace and harmony at home. But meeting the outward appearance of peace is not the same as emotional caregiving.

Most parents in “too nice” families are exceptional when it comes to physical caregiving.  The house is clean. The lawn is mowed. The parents show up at events. And the family takes nice vacations together. Scrapbooks and social media posts document wonderful images of family life and togetherness.

But these parents may not have ever been taught that children also need emotional caregiving. Without it, our children will suffer on a deeply personal level, despite the appearance of everything being wonderful. And this is fertile ground for eating disorders.

It may not feel like it right now, but the development of an eating disorder can actually be a wonderful gift for parents of “too nice” families. Loving and well-meaning parents can see eating disorders as an opportunity to build new parenting skills. As a result, they can deepen their emotional intimacy with their children and everyone benefits.

Emotional caregiving

Emotional caregiving is the essential ingredient to building truly connected families. In these families, each member feels like both an individual and a beloved member of the group. It is provided when parents acknowledge that a child’s emotional health is equally important to their physical health. Parents who are emotional caregivers have the following behaviors:

  • Seek knowledge and guidance to improve their understanding of emotional states, expression, and management.
  • Learn techniques to manage emotions more effectively without hurting themselves or others.
  • Are deeply attuned to their children’s emotional state. Can help their kids talk about emotions and feelings without shame or embarrassment.
  • Often check in on their children’s emotional state.
  • Remain conscious of their own emotional state and take steps to provide an emotionally safe environment within the family.

If you think emotional health is a bunch of new-age crap, then please understand that emotional health is absolutely and without a doubt directly linked to physical health. Specifically, emotional health is directly linked to death.

Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, said in a 2017 article that loneliness (one of the key emotions) is a public health crisis. Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia. “The reduction in lifespan (for loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” he said. (Harvard Business Review, Sept 2017)

The deeply connected family

The difference between a “too nice” family and a deeply connected family may not be apparent on the outside. Some emotionally connected families may even appear less connected to outsiders who value cohesion and polite interaction. This is because they value individual expression rather than conformity.

The deeply connected family is completely comfortable with individual expression and authentic communication. They are secure in the knowledge that emotions bring us closer when expressed and processed in a healthy way. In a deeply connected family, each and every individual feels understood and accepted for exactly who they are. 

A family’s transformation from “too nice” to deeply connected may begin with an eating disorder diagnosis. But it does not end when the eating disorder symptoms go away. While a child recovers from an eating disorder, it is important for parents to build their emotional caregiving skills.

Here are some steps that you can take to begin the process of becoming a deeply connected family:

1. Get therapy

If you recognize yourself as having a “too nice” family. If your child is reporting that they repress their feelings to protect you. Or if they say they are afraid of what will happen if they are “real” or tell the truth. Then please seek therapy for yourself.

Rest assured that this is not because this is your fault or because you are a failure as a parent. It’s very common for wonderful and loving parents to lack emotional caregiving skills. This is mainly because their own parents were not emotional caregivers.

The great news is that any parent can learn to improve their emotional caregiving. And every minor improvement that you make in emotional caregiving will make a fantastic impact on your children’s health and happiness.

2. Become emotionally literate

Emotional literacy involves learning to accurately identify, understand, and reflect feelings. When we become emotionally literate, we finally understand our children’s feelings. We can help them process their feelings in adaptive (vs. maladaptive) ways.

Emotional literacy involves learning the words to define how we feel. This can often bring strange and uncomfortable negative emotions out of the shadows where they can be examined without shame.

Begin by learning to fully define common emotions like Anger, Sadness, and Joy. Think of them as the tip of an iceberg. When we look below the surface, we can find rich, detailed information about the source of the feeling.

anger iceberg the gottman institute
The Anger Iceberg graphic is courtesy of The Gottman Institute

3. Learn mindfulness

When we are mindful, we are able to recognize that our feelings exist but are not a threat. Our primitive brain developed to protect us from life-threatening events such as lion attacks, floods, fires, and marauding intruders. Unfortunately, they latch on to negative emotions and treat them as if they, too, are life-threatening.

Mindfulness helps us engage our advanced prefrontal cortex. This helps us recognize our feelings without judgment and allow them to pass through us. We learn to avoid mindless and potentially harmful actions.

Parents can integrate mindfulness into their own behavior, and also teach their children to become more mindful. Here is a video we created to help you understand one basic mindfulness technique:

The healing process for your child will likely impose some fundamental changes in how your family operates. These changes will feel uncomfortable, but they can also lead to a deeper, more meaningful family connection over time.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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How to handle emotional storms in eating disorder recovery

How to handle emotional storms in eating disorder recovery

Many parents who have a child with an eating disorder feel buffeted by constant emotional storms, which may include yelling, crying, and arguments. Emotional storms are part of eating disorder recovery because many times the underlying driver of the eating disorder behaviors is emotional dysregulation.

These emotional storms may seem bizarre and unpredictable. But look deeper and you’ll learn that these storms are your child’s way of asking you for help. Yes, they’re uncomfortable. Of course we would rather our children come to us with polite and well-worded requests for help. But that’s not typically how it goes.

A child who has an eating disorder will ask for help not with words but behaviors. And sometimes the most difficult and off-putting behaviors are the most important ones to handle.

Emotional storms pass when your meet your child’s emotional needs. The good news is that any parent can learn how to provide emotional care even if it doesn’t feel natural. Here are six things to do when an emotional storm comes along:

emotional regulation

1. Don’t freak out

The first thing you need to do for a child who starts an emotional storm is to stop your instinctual first response. You may actually be “emotion-phobic,” and feel physically repelled by a child who starts crying, yelling or arguing with you. Your first instinct may be to yell back, roll your eyes, or just leave the room.

But your child has very real needs for emotional connection. Emotional needs are just as life-critical as our need for air, food and water. Recognize that you are freaking out, remind yourself that this isn’t your fault but you still need to do the work, and focus on giving them what they need right now.

2. Forget about time

It’s not unusual for parents to feel exhausted by their child’s emotional needs. One thought that might come up for you is how ridiculous their emotional needs are, and the thought that you don’t have time to do this for them all the time. OK. That’s a valid fear for you.

Now take a breath and remember that your child is in the process of healing from a terrible, self-destructive disorder. They need you to work through your aversions and show up for them during emotional storms. Rest assured that your time investment and attention to their emotional care is absolutely worthwhile.

Also remember that emotional storms don’t last forever. Most emotional storms, when addressed compassionately, can be resolved in less than an hour. As your child heals and you get better at weathering these storms together, they may pass in just a few minutes. Like anything new, it’s going to take practice. Take a deep breath and just be here now. Go minute by minute if you need to, but stay with them.

3. Make it about your child, not you

It’s not unusual to feel very angry, overwhelmed, or irritated when a child is having an emotional storm. But you have to set that aside. You child needs you, and this is part of your job as their parent. Make this moment about their needs.

An emotional storm is not the time for you to talk about how your child’s behavior makes you feel. Don’t ask them what you should do, what you were supposed to do, or any other questions that indicate you feel victimized by their emotions. During an emotional storm, your child needs you to be solely focused on their needs. This is not because your needs don’t matter (they absolutely do), but it’s all about timing, and this is not the time.

If you find yourself panicked and either lashing out or biting your tongue through every emotional storm, then please see a coach or therapist to help you with your very natural and real feelings of frustration. Your feelings are valid, and a qualified therapist can help you get your needs for self-expression met while still giving your child the emotional care they need during eating disorder recovery.

4. Reflect, don’t defend

When your child says something during an emotional storm, don’t debate, deny or judge what they said. Those responses are all defensive, which means you are defending against your child’s need for emotional connection. To them, it feels as if you have erected a wall between the two of you. Their continued yelling, arguing, or crying is an attempt to break the wall down.

Instead of getting defensive, reflect on what they say. This is how we reassure people that we hear and understand them, and it is what our children crave most from us. You will know this is working when the volume goes down.

This takes a lot of practice. Most of the time when we get defensive we genuinely don’t see ourselves as being defensive. You may not realize this, but denying that you are being defensive is actually being defensive. Listen to your child. If they rage even louder at you after you say something, then there is a good chance you said something to defend yourself against their emotional experience.

Remember that emotional storms pass when you meet your child’s emotional needs. So take a deep breath, and listen to what your child says. Reflect back to them what you heard so that they know you are listening.

ad-parentcoaching-ed

5. Slow down

Sometimes parents attempt to solve their kids’ problems as quickly as possible, but if we try to move too quickly to resolve the problem, we will not meet our child’s emotional needs. Remember that whatever they are raging about is a cover for their actual need to feel emotionally connected with you.

If they are arguing with you about the stupidity of the school’s dress code, don’t tell them that’s just how it is and they need to get over it. Encourage them to talk about what the restrictions on clothing means to them.

If they are crying because they failed a test, don’t tell them it will be better next time. Instead, help them use the test as a way to connect with you and feel heard and seen by you.

Don’t say “it will all be fine.” Say “I can see it feels really bad for you right now,” and let them keep talking about it. This is how we build emotional connection. The result is that our children feel truly seen and understood by us, which is every child’s deepest wish.

This is hard. Remember that your child’s need for emotional connection is normal and natural, and within your power to give. It may not be easy, but you can learn to give them what they need to thrive. Be patient with yourself, and get the support you need to learn these skills.

But why so many?

If you are still wondering why your child with an eating disorder has so many emotional storms, here are a few things to consider:

1. Emotional care is a fundamental human need

All humans are hard-wired to seek emotional care as well as physical care from their parents. In fact, an infant sees no difference between emotional and physical care. Infants who are raised with only physical care and zero emotional care do not flourish. They suffer tremendously from lack of emotional nurturing. This is a biological adaptation based on the fact that we are social animals and thrive in groups. Emotional caregiving is how we bond with our group and remain safe and alive.

Your child’s emotional storms are an attempt to gain emotional caregiving. Rather than seeing it as a failure on their part of yours, see it as an opportunity to help them.

2. Some humans need more emotional care than others

Some people have a greater need for emotional intimacy than others. If your child has an eating disorder, then there is a good chance that they fall in the category of “Highly Sensitive People,” a trait that can been observed in the very first year of life. These children have a highly sensitive nervous system that can pick up on emotions in a way that seems supernatural to most people. It is not uncommon for parents who themselves have normal or low emotional sensitivity to have a child who baffles them with high sensitivity traits. This mismatch is not anyone’s fault but must be addressed during eating disorder treatment.

A child who has a lot of emotional storms during eating disorder treatment is showing that they need more emotional care. That care may look different than what you thought it meant to care for someone. It might look different than the care you’ve given to your other children or the care you received as a child. But it’s worth investigating the cause, the need, and learning new skills to support your child emotionally.

3. It’s not your fault

Very few parents intentionally neglect their children’s emotional needs. Most of the time the trouble lies in a misunderstanding of a child’s needs because they function differently than you do. When your child has an emotional storm, it’s hard not to feel personally attacked and defensive, especially if they are criticizing your parenting. You may be tempted to withdraw because it feels so hateful when you did (and are doing) your very best.

But please understand that this is not about whether you did your best. This is simply about the fact that you did your very best, and now there is more to be done. Our children never lose their need to be seen and understood by their parents, and people who have eating disorders are likely to continue getting stuck in self-destructive behaviors as long as they feel emotionally under-nourished.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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Getting angry in recovery for an eating disorder

child angry recovering eating disorder

If your child has an eating disorder, it’s very possible that they feel angry while recovering. Most parents do everything they can to support their children, and they do not anticipate the anger that often comes with recovery. Anger during eating disorder recovery can look like:

  • Yelling at you
  • Refusing to go places and do things with you
  • Mumbling curses under their breath
  • Angry looks and smirks
  • Talking about you with disdain to other people
  • Criticizing you

Almost all parents have done the absolute best job they possibly can in raising their child to be whole, confident and strong. When a child has an eating disorder, it can feel like a slap in the face after all the effort you have put into parenting.

And yet, here it is. And it means there is work to be done.

Why your child gets angry when recovering from an eating disorder

Many people who have eating disorders use eating disorder behaviors as a way to go around, avoid, or completely ignore uncomfortable feelings. Instead of processing emotions in a healthy manner, eating disorder behaviors help take feelings underground. This results in a build-up of negative emotions for which they have no skills (other than maladaptive ones like restricting, bingeing and purging) to process.

This is why it can be very normal for your child to feel angry when recovering from an eating disorder. It’s often a sign that they are feeling feelings. Anger is one of the most common feelings, and is typically easier to access and express than more complicated emotions like despair, fear, loneliness, distrust, and languishing.

During eating disorder recovery, your child must learn new skills to process their complex feelings in healthy, adaptive ways. These skills are easy to comprehend on an intellectual level, but they are very difficult to practice, and even more difficult to integrate into everyday behavior.

Getting angry can be a good sign

Recovering from an eating disorder requires your child to practice processing feelings like anger in real-time. Because they have incomplete coping tools for doing this, it feels raw and terrifying when anger comes up. At the same time, parents, siblings and other loved ones experience a person who was fairly pleasant and easy-going transform into one who seems irrationally angry.

This is a critical moment in recovery. When your child stops hiding their feelings and allows socially unattractive emotions such as anger to arise, it means they are healing. But it’s also very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of this anger. It’s hard to watch your child who has an eating disorder tap into all their rage and anger.

Your child may feel very sorry. But they actually need to be unapologetic about having feelings, including anger. They know this is hard for you, but they also need you to be able to tolerate their anger as they heal. They need a safe space in which to exercise their new tools for feeling feelings in real-time, which includes feeling anger and other “unacceptable” feelings.

Setting boundaries

You can set boundaries around angry behavior, but be careful not to set boundaries around feelings. Parents can and should help children untangle, label, and feel their feelings. This is a critical parenting skill that can be learned. However, it’s fine to set boundaries around behaviors like:

  • Name-calling
  • Swearing
  • Hitting and physical violence
  • Self-harm

You can tell your child that when these things happen you will call a time out and address the behavior. But you will always return to the feelings that drove the behavior, and you understand that it’s hard to learn how to process feelings, and you’re there to help them do it safely. Make sure you follow through and always go back to have the difficult conversations that need to happen about difficult emotions.

It will get harder before it gets easier

Difficult emotions may be hard for you to see, especially since many people who have eating disorders seem pretty easy-going and agreeable. People who have eating disorders often anticipate others’ emotions and are sensitive to socially-acceptable behavior. Many mold their emotional expression to fit others’ needs.

You may not have noticed how much was remaining unsaid about how your child felt and what they sensed on an hourly basis. There’s a good chance they have been hiding a lot from you.

You may have never asked them to repress their emotions, but many times kids behave in ways that they believe will protect their loved ones from dangerous emotions like anger. Your child may have intuited that you couldn’t handle their anger, and thus found ways to work around it and hide it from you. There’s no need to blame yourself, but it’s important to know that your child has been experiencing you in this way.

When a person begins to recover, they have to stop protecting their parents from their feelings. They have to start allowing their anger, frustration, jealousy, hurt, pettiness, cowardice, and all other negative emotions to surface without a buffer. It’s intense for you. It’s intense for them. But if they shut this down, they risk their recovery.

This is why your child feeling angry when recovering from an eating disorder is both normal and difficult.

Here are four ways parents can deal with a child who is expressing a lot of anger while in the eating disorder recovery process:

ad-parentcoaching-ed

1. Don’t take it personally

No matter what your child says, you need to try and remember that you should not take their words personally. They may say awful, nasty things. And some of them may be true. But if you take their words personally, you will shut them down immediately.

Your child is learning to process in new ways, without their eating disorder behavior. They need you to be stronger than their words right now so that they can learn on their own how to do this without turning to restricting, binging, and purging. This is really not about you. It’s about them learning to do new things.

2. Don’t get defensive

Your child will probably call into question things you have done, things you said you would do, and things you didn’t do. They will do this a lot. It will hurt. But remember that this is not about roasting you on a spit. This is actually your child testing out ways to communicate without their disorder. It’s messy. It can hurt. It’s often a sign of healing.

Please don’t get defensive and tell them that something didn’t happen or that something had to happen the way it did. The “thing” is not the point. They are testing out the idea that someone who loves them can tolerate their pain. They want to feel held and accepted with their pain. Take a deep breath and ignore your deep desire to defend yourself.

3. Acknowledge and accept anger

Your child has anger. The only way they knew to process anger before was to make their body suffer. Now they are trying to learn to process anger in healthy ways. When they are processing anger with you, the best thing you can do is acknowledge and accept the anger without judgment.

Listen. Acknowledge what is said (acknowledgment is not the same as agreement). Validate them and tell them their feelings are important. Apologize if you did something wrong. Let them know that you wish they never had to suffer this pain, but that you believe they can handle it. Tell them you are here for them no matter what they say or do. Let them cry. Let them mourn. Let them rage. Feeling feelings, including anger, is important and healthy.

emotional regulation

4. Let it be

It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to downright suck. You’re going to make mistakes and mess up in this process. Your child might say terrible things to you. But all you need to do is remember that each time your child brings up anger, it is part of eating disorder recovery. Your only job is to let it be. Allow their anger to exist in the world.

Many parents believe our job is to make pain and anger go away for our kids. We think we are supposed to fix things for them and make them better. But our children need us to just let their pain and anger exist in nature. Just like thorns on a rosebush, anger does not make them ugly. It is natural and part of all of us. Our children need to know they can be loved with their anger. They need to know this in order to recover. Just let it be.

A parents’ job during recovery is undeniably difficult. As a child learns new skills, their parents need to learn how to handle them. This is hard. Please get the support you need to be the parent your child needs during this time. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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What it feels like to get away with your eating disorder in plain sight

Most people who have eating disorders remain undiagnosed and untreated, often for life. This is partly due to the weight stigma that surrounds eating disorders, which means that only those who become “medically underweight” based on BMI standards are recognized as having eating disorders.

While a lot of us who are undiagnosed will find our own way to recovery without formal help, it means we waste years of our lives living with a treatable disorder that damages our health, both physical and mental. Even when we are not medically underweight, we may be starving ourselves. Even when we appear strong and healthy, we may be damaging our internal organs. Even when we say we are happy, we may be harming ourselves.

Most children will do everything possible to hide an eating disorder from their parents, but it is important for parents to know that most of us fervently wish that you would find out. It’s complicated, and it’s not easy to confront a child who is hiding an eating disorder (many of us will fight to hold onto our disorders), but it’s also our jobs as parents, now that we know this information, to act as best we can to help our kids.

As you consider how best to approach your child when you suspect they have an eating disorder, consider these six feelings your child may be feeling when undiagnosed/untreated for an eating disorder:

Powerful

Most people, young people especially, mistakenly equate their “selves” with their bodies. This means that we believe that maintaining control over our bodies means we are controlling our entire lives. Most of us begin our disorders with a diet, carefully measuring and watching as we make changes in our habits and see our weight drop. This feeling is intensely powerful and rewarding, especially since most weight loss is accompanied by positive reinforcement from others. As we go deeper into our eating disorder, we crave that feeling of power over our bodies. Once we start sneaking our behaviors, we feel even more powerful in our successful execution of our eating disorder. When our parents are not able to stop our eating disorder, we gain a sense of independence and autonomy that becomes critically important to our sense of self.

Smart

Eating disorders are very sneaky, and they help us figure out ways to hide them in plain sight. We feel very smart when we are able to avoid eating food or sneak food into our rooms for a binge. We feel very smart when we sit at the table with family and eat a  meal, then purge it in plain sight – with nobody catching us. We feel very smart when we are able to manipulate our weight or resist food for the day. When restricting, we often feel superior in our abilities to deny ourselves the foods that others indulge in. Our eating disorder becomes our partner in deception, and we begin to feel pretty damn good about our ability to keep our eating disorder under the radar with our skills.

Supported

Most people who have eating disorders experience intense feelings of loneliness and a sense of being out of control. Luckily, our eating disorder is there to assure us that as long as we follow its rules, we are supported and doing the right thing. Our eating disorder becomes the loudest voice in our head, assuring us that we are on the right path and being explicit in its praise of our accomplishments when we maintain the disorder despite anyone’s attempts to stop it.

Lonely

Even with the perceived value of our eating disorder in our head, we also feel lonely. Our eating disorder can become the center of our world, and we must isolate ourselves and our true feelings from people we love in order to maintain it. As much as we get a rush from protecting our eating disorder, we also feel terribly alone. As much as we feel a bit smug when we sit at the table engaging in our eating disorder in plain sight with no repercussions, we feel very alone in our eating disorder. Here parents can see the paradox of the eating disorder. Even when we desperately want intervention and support, we have equally strong feelings about remaining isolated in our eating disorder.

Scared

Sometimes we feel our eating disorder is getting too big, too powerful. As much as we want to maintain it, we can also feel that we are being controlled by it. Our disordered minds quickly cover these feelings up with reassurances that the eating disorder is a wonderful thing. But in our hearts, we feel afraid. We worry that our eating disorder makes us disgusting and gross. The more we hide it, the more ashamed we are of our condition. We worry that our eating disorder, if exposed, will turn people off. We are afraid of someone walking into the bathroom at an inopportune time, or clearing the table before we have managed to hide evidence of our disorder. We are always scared about both the fact that we have an eating disorder and the idea of losing our eating disorder if we are found out.

Unseen

Even as we feel powerful because of our eating disorder, the fact that we can get away with it makes us feel profoundly unseen. It’s a paradox, because of course we are doing everything we can to keep our disorder unseen, and yet, being unseen by loved ones is devastating. When we hide our disorder successfully (and it’s very easy to do this), we must also live with the consequence of the people closest to us not knowing about a very important part of our lives. Our eating disorder is a significant part of our lived experience, but when we don’t share it, we erect barriers between ourselves and the people who we would like to notice us.

What parents can do

The main thing parents can do is continually pay attention to their children and be aware of the signs of an eating disorder. Some signs you may consider include:

  • Watch for weight changes. While weight alone is an unreliable predictor of eating disorders, if your child is gaining and losing weight repeatedly, this may be an early sign of an eating disorder. If your child loses weight, avoid praising the weight loss. Remember that weight loss, while culturally desirable, is often an indication that something is wrong.
  • Watch for dieting. Our culture believes that dieting is healthy, but it is not. Intentional weight loss doesn’t work (long-term), causes damage to our bodies and minds, and leads to eating disorders. Via dieting, eating disorder behaviors have become socially acceptable. If your child is dieting, it may be an early sign of an eating disorder.
  • Watch for social flushing. If your child is increasingly spending time doing isolated activities (especially exercising or spending time in the bathroom), or has moved away from family and old friends, it is worth considering whether this is an attempt to maintain an eating disorder. Many of us will flush our existing social networks in order to hide our eating disorders. It is much harder to hide our disorders from people who knew us before they arose, so often we will avoid family members and switch friend groups so that we can hide our disorder without detection.

If you suspect that your child is hiding an eating disorder, be compassionate with yourself and your child when you address it. Understand that eating disorders are not simple, and they don’t just go away without building new coping skills that replace the eating disorder behaviors. Don’t blame yourself, don’t blame your child, and don’t look backwards. Seek help for yourself and your child, and move forward in pursuing treatment, confident that the majority of eating disorders are treatable.

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Decoding the language of eating disorders through art and metaphor

a mother breastfeeding a child to demonstrate art therapy and eating disorders

When our children develop eating disorders, we must understand that they are struggling with issues much deeper than food and their bodies. And yet the way they eat (or don’t eat) may be a critical clue to help us understand how we can help.

The very first way in which we care for our children is through feeding. When our children are in utero, their mother effortlessly nourishes them directly – body to body. Once born, our children seek the milk produced in our bodies and take it from our own bodies into their own. In this way, our children are directly connected to their mothers and completely dependent upon them for nourishment.

Once weaned, our children still rely on their parents for nourishment. As young children, they cannot separate the giving of food from the giving of comfort and love. They do not separate their bodily needs from their emotional needs. Both the food and attention we provide are vital to their growth and survival.

When viewed through this lens, it may not be so surprising that in today’s culture, we often see eating disorders arise during the period in life (adolescence) when we tend to ask our children to feed themselves.

As they arrive at about ten years old, we pull back on preparing and serving food. Busy schedules compete with sit-down family meals. Our children are independent enough to buy food at school, make their own lunches, and grab food from the pantry. We gain tremendous freedom when we no longer need to personally feed them 4-5 times per day.

A perceived loss

But is it possible that our children perceive this independence as a loss of parental nourishment? Is it possible that sometimes an eating disorder is the child’s way to ask for more care and attention? Because while it’s perfectly reasonable for us to pull back on feeding duties, some of us may forget that providing emotional nourishment is more important than ever.

Through no fault of our own, is it possible that our children are still linking being fed with being loved? If we divorce ourselves from the deeply symbolic and metaphoric meaning of food, then we may miss the signs that our children still need our parenting in ways that we thought they had outgrown.

The culture of belonging

Beyond basic life, eating habits and rituals are inextricably linked to culture and society. They are at the root of our belonging. When we eat together, forces deep in our psyche conspire to foster feelings of togetherness, belonging and companionship. Eating with others is inherently soothing to the human brain. When our child rejects the social norms around eating, it may be a sign that she is feeling isolated, alone and rejected.

There are three requirements for life: food, water, and oxygen. When our child begins to misuse one of these requirements, it may be a sign that life itself is not going smoothly for her*. This does not mean that we have done anything wrong as parents, but it may mean that something is wrong and we can make adjustments in our behavior to nourish our child in the ways that she needs.

Food and eating are never simple or black and white. When our child changes her food and eating behaviors, it may be a sign that there are things we can do as parents to regroup and hold our child closer. It may be a sign that our child needs us in a fundamental, deep way that cannot be expressed in words, but that she is expressing in food and eating behaviors.

When we listen to our child and think of food’s symbolism and metaphor, we are better able to support her in healing.

What eating behaviors might say if they could speak

We must look beneath the stated food rules or exhibited food behavior to find out what our child may be trying to communicate. Remember that these are just ideas – each child has her own relationship with food, eating, and nourishment. But those of us in recovery from an eating disorder can often find our words reflected below.

I won’t eat. I reject your care.

I eat too much. I can’t get enough care.

I’m afraid of food. I’m afraid of life.

I’m too fat. I’m not lovable.

I need to be thinner. I don’t accept myself.

I won’t eat animals. I feel voiceless, powerless, and mistreated.

I won’t eat gluten/processed foods/sugar. I need to feel pure.

I only eat healthy food. I need to feel good.

I eat in secret. My needs are shameful.

I overexercise. I deserve punishment.

I purge. I don’t deserve to have my needs met.

I eat to the point of discomfort. I deserve pain.

I steal food. I don’t deserve to be nourished.

I won’t eat in public. I do not belong.

I cheated. I am a failure.

Whatever food behaviors our children exhibit may provide an opportunity to see more deeply into their hearts and deepest desires. It is only when we accept their needs that we are able to provide the care that only parents are capable of giving.


*Eating disorders impact both females and males. The English language does not make it easy to write in a manner that acknowledges this fact. Therefore, for this article, we have chosen to write using female pronouns. Please be advised that this advice pertains equally to females and males.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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The fear parade: a simple mindfulness trick to help kids manage anxiety and stress

Anxiety is a common co-occurring condition with eating disorders, and both anxiety and eating disorders are on the rise for our kids. It’s important that we learn some tools to help them manage their anxiety so that they can avoid triggering eating disorder behavior.

The reasons our kids are more anxious are real and pervasive. Our kids today are facing more pressure to achieve academic success from an early age. While many of us didn’t start worrying about college admission until high school, our kids often worry about college beginning in middle school or even earlier. The pressure to perform is constant, and even if we manage to avoid adding pressure at home, there is plenty to go around at school.

In the midst of this increased academic pressure, we also expect our kids to compete in their sports and participate in enrichment activities like chess, piano and computer coding. And then there are the expectations to volunteer, give back, and participate in society in a meaningful way, which supposedly “looks great on college applications.”

Meanwhile, our kids’ social structures are completely different from how we experienced them. The advent of smartphones, which have completely transformed socialization, is impacting the current generation in ways we cannot fully grasp. Social media, texting and other offline interactions have replaced hanging around together in the same room or talking on the phone. We have no idea how this change in socialization will impact our kids, but initial signs are not great.

So, there is a lot of reason for anxiety, and our kids are suffering as a result. Mindfulness – the ability to step aside and separate the “self” from feelings of fear – can help our kids manage this tremendous stress, and simultaneously reduce symptoms of anxiety and eating disorder behavior.

We came up with a short video about one trick we like to use, called the Fear Parade. Check it out!

The Fear Parade (Mindfulness in Action)

There you are, just minding your own business … when suddenly you remember that you have a test tomorrow, and you haven’t studied! And that’s when the fear feelings start circling. They say terrible things like:

  • You’re going to fail!
  • How could you do this to me?
  • You’re so stupid!
  • You’re going to die!
  • This is the worst thing ever!
  • This is the end!
  • It’s all over.

Suddenly, it’s not just the test tomorrow, it’s everything. Your feelings turn into gigantic monsters and they take over your mind. They start in your head, but within a fraction of a second, they change your

  • Heartbeat
  • Breathing
  • Eyes
  • Muscles

And Adrenaline pumps all through your body, shutting down rational thought. It is impossible to think rationally during the fear response. When this happens, it feels like there is nowhere you can go. You feel trapped.

Mindfulness can help. Here’s how it works. The first thing you must do is realize that you are in a fear-state. Take a step back, and notice that you are being overwhelmed by fear.

Now, take a look at the fear monsters in your head. They are trying to talk, but they are tripping all over themselves. Tell the feelings you’re willing to listen, but they have to behave. Ask them to line up. Now, that’s better.

Let’s have a fear parade, with a float full of feelings that you can watch as they pass. The fear feelings can all jump on the float so you can see them. The float can pass in front of you, and you can watch it go by, but you know that you are separate from the feelings. Your feelings are real, but they aren’t always the truth.

As you watch the parade, your fear feelings are still there, but you notice that they seem smaller. Your body starts to relax, as you see the fear feelings getting smaller and smaller. And, suddenly, you notice that your body is calmer.

Without the fear shutting down your brain, you can think clearly again. Now you can start taking action based on what you learned from the fear. In other words, start studying!


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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Are you gaslighting your child who has an eating disorder?

gaslighting eating disorder

Martha is irritated. Her daughter Brianna has been in treatment for an eating disorder, and yesterday she accused Martha of “gaslighting.”

“What is she even talking about?” asks Martha, clearly exasperated. “I keep hearing this term thrown around, and I feel like Brianna just plucked it off TikTok or something and is using it to make me feel bad.”

I can totally understand Martha’s frustration. It’s never nice when our kids accuse us of something bad, and it’s even worse when we feel the term is inaccurate or we don’t even understand what they are trying to say. So many times kids who have eating disorders use terminology that is alarming to parents, and “gaslighting” is a pretty popular one right now.

Gaslighting is a colloquialism, loosely defined as making someone question their own reality. The expression, which derives from the title of the 1944 film Gaslight, became popular in the mid-2010s.

Wikipedia

The term “gaslighting” is quite popular in the media today. It means to deny another person’s perception of reality. Sometimes it can look like “toxic positivity,” and other times, it looks like defensiveness. Most of the time, when parents gaslight, it is accidental, but it’s also important to change the pattern.

Gaslighting is a problem because, over time, when a person’s perception is routinely overruled by someone they love, they lose confidence and security. The long-term impact of gaslighting is an inability to accurately judge how people see you and less faith in how you see yourself. The opposite of gaslighting is validating.

When your child has an eating disorder, ending patterns of gaslighting is really important. And it all begins with understanding what it is and why we do it. Once that’s clear, you can start validating your child instead. This will get easier with practice.

Reading about gaslighting

Many of the articles about gaslighting today talk about adult relationships, in which one partner gaslights the other, leading to gross manipulation and emotional abuse. In most of these articles, the partner who is being gaslighted is instructed to escape the gaslighter or suffer lifelong pain and suffering. You may see that the term gaslight is often used to describe behavior typical of someone with narcissistic or borderline traits. Gaslighting is considered a “toxic” trait.

You may come across articles written by adult children. They say their parents used gaslighting to manipulate them. These children say their parents’ gaslighting led them to suffer lifelong timidity and self-doubt. They report terrible self-esteem and say they seek love from all the wrong people. Or they may set firm boundaries or even estrange themselves from parents who they accuse of gaslighting. These adult kids usually talk about years of therapy while trying to recover from their parents’ gaslighting behavior.

In short, you’re unlikely to find anything positive when reading about gaslighting. This is what happened to Martha. “I’ve been bending over backward to help Brianna recover from her eating disorder, and to have her accuse me of gaslighting is a slap in the face,” says Martha. “Everything I read about gaslighting is that it’s toxic, but I’m not toxic! I love her!”

Most parents gaslight their kids some of the time

Like so many psychological terms, gaslighting falls along a spectrum. And most parents do some form of gaslighting sometimes. Parental gaslighting of the everyday variety is typically in response to a child’s distress.

Your toddler falls, and you coo, “you’re OK,” even though he is crying. You are honestly trying to be the best parent by reassuring your child. But this comment could be called gaslighting since it denies the fact that the child clearly doesn’t feel OK at the moment.

But here’s where nuance is important. Sometimes telling a kid who is mildly upset that they are OK will help the child regroup and realize that they are actually OK. But if the child insists he is hurt and the parent continues to try to convince the child he is OK, that is what people call gaslighting. When parents do this consistently and over time, it can leave a child feeling something called cognitive dissonance.

He may think, “if I feel bad, but Mom says I’m OK, there must be something wrong with me.”

Parents are the ultimate authority in a child’s life. And obtaining their parents’ love and approval is every human’s most primal need. So if parents consistently protest a child’s discomfort, the child begins to doubt themself and may think, “I must be crazy to have all these bad feelings.”

A child who has an eating disorder may be especially susceptible to gaslighting since they tend to struggle with self-worth and identity.

emotional regulation

Accidental gaslighting with an eating disorder

Gaslighting is something a lot of parents do by accident. They are not trying to undermine their child’s sense of self. And yet that is a consequence of continually invalidating a child’s experience of their feelings and reality.

As parents, we often have no idea that we’re accidentally impacting our child’s sense of self-trust. We are just trying to protect our children from upsetting emotions. When our child cries, we jump to stop the tears as quickly as possible. It’s not because we’re monsters: it’s because we want our children to be happy.

It gets even harder as our kids grow and become more independent. With independence comes an increase in arguments, especially in the teenage years.

Now it’s not just that our child is crying because he fell and scraped his knee. Now our child is crying because he is angry with us and feels wronged and misunderstood. We immediately jump into action, trying to stop our child’s distress, which is often directed at us, as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, this attempt to get our child to recover from being upset is a form of gaslighting. Whether we are using toxic positivity or defensiveness, it’s harmful. We are so desperate for them to return to happy feelings that we invalidate or deny their actual feelings. We are uncomfortable with their discomfort, so we try to sweep it under the rug so we can all move on with “normal life.”

What gaslighting looks like

Gaslighting is easy to do. We often say things like:

  • That’s not true
  • Don’t be sad – you have so many things to be happy for
  • I can’t believe you said that
  • That’s not what I said
  • There’s no need to be so upset
  • If I had your life I would be so happy
  • That’s not what happened
  • You have no idea how lucky you are
  • I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about this
  • You’re fine – get over it
  • I don’t know why you’re so upset
  • You have to be cold – it’s freezing outside
  • You’re just too sensitive
  • It’s fine. Why are you making a big deal about this?

When Martha thought about it, she could see that she sometimes did gaslight Brianna. “I guess I never realized that when I said things that I thought were uplifting and positive, they were actually invalidating to Brianna,” says Martha. “I still think the word gaslighting is too strong for what I did, but I can understand why Brianna is using that word now.”

Brianna’s criticism of Martha’s parenting was hard to hear. And what Martha was doing wasn’t full-blown pathological gaslighting. But it was just accurate enough to help us uncover ways she can be more helpful. Most criticism has a fragment of truth. If we can relax our defenses enough to get curious, that fragment may become a breakthrough. When someone with an eating disorder says you are gaslighting, that might just be their way of asking you to try something different.

There is hope after accidental gaslighting

The good news is that parents who have accidentally gaslighted a child can change the pattern. Over time, you can help your child by validating instead of trying to get past their feelings. This is a critical part of building a deeper connection with a child who has an eating disorder.

People who have eating disorders need a lot of emotional validation because they are trying to learn emotional regulation and self-soothing. Parents who stop gaslighting and start validating can supercharge eating disorder recovery.

Stop gaslighting and start validating

All parents can get out of unhelpful gaslighting habits and start validating feelings instead. Don’t worry if it takes some time for you to learn how to do this. It’s a practice; you don’t have to do it perfectly to make a difference.

The first step is to get comfortable with your kid’s uncomfortable emotions. All of them. This includes rage, sadness, loneliness, and fear. You can start validating when you accept that your child can and should have all the feelings, not just the nice ones.

Validating your child’s feelings is not the same thing as accepting that everything they say is factually true. If your child says, “I’m angry because you always criticize me,” you have a few options. You can focus on what is not true: that you always criticize them. This will be invalidating. Or you can validate what you agree is true, “you’re angry and feel as if I’m critical.”

Most of the time, parents who struggle with gaslighting are invalidating. So now it’s time to focus on validating your child’s emotions, which are always true. What feelings can you validate and acknowledge? This requires you not to defend yourself. When we gaslight, it’s usually because we are defending ourselves against something that makes us uncomfortable.

So any time you feel uncomfortable about something your child says, take a deep breath. Before you respond, drop your shoulders and seek the emotional truth your child is sharing with you.

How to validate your child’s feelings

The first key when you validate your child’s feelings is to recognize that this is hard for you. Yes, that’s right. Before you attend to your child, take a minute to send yourself some self-compassion for the experience of witnessing your child’s pain. At first, it feels unnatural and wrong to just sit by and validate our kids’ feelings rather than trying to make everything OK or defend ourselves.

When your child begins expressing feelings, give yourself self-compassion and recognize that this is hard. Next, step into the hard and validate your child’s feelings. Here is what validation looks like:

Child: “I hate everyone. This is terrible. I hate you!”

Parent: “I can see you’re really angry right now.”

Child: “Yeah! I’m pissed! Life just sucks!”

Parent: “It’s so hard for you right now.”

Child: Crying “I’m such a mess. I hate my life.”

Parent: “I’m so sorry, Sweetie.”

Child: Crying “I’m sorry”

Parent: “I’m here, Sweetie. I’m here. It will be OK”

As your child begins to calm down, you can talk about the feelings in a reflective, non-judgemental manner.

“Wow, those were some big feelings there.”

“Those feelings can be so scary.”

“It felt like those feelings were rough on you.”

We can also reassure our children that feelings ebb and flow. They are real feelings, but they are not always the truth.

You can say something like, “big feelings like anger and hopelessness feel so scary. Sometimes we have to just let them happen and get as big as they need to. I’ll stay here with you while you feel this”

Don’t judge the feelings or talk about them as if they are bad. Feelings can be big and scary, but they are not dangerous. It’s only when we turn feelings into behaviors that they put us at risk. Remember to give yourself self-compassion every step of the way. Take some deep breaths and say to yourself, “this is hard, but I can handle it.”

Martha’s results

Martha took this advice and started validating Brianna. “It was hard at first,” she says. “I kept messing up, returning to defensiveness, and trying to make her see the bright side. I never realized how uncomfortable I was with Brianna’s feelings. All of my so-called gaslighting resulted from my fear that her feelings were too bad for me to handle. But now that I’m validating her feelings, they’re actually a lot more manageable. She’s made more progress in the past few weeks that I’ve been doing this than she has in years.”

Martha continues to work on validating and has noticed that it’s helping her in almost every relationship. It was very hard to be accused of gaslighting, but it has ended up being a positive opportunity to learn and grow.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

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

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Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: rebuilding the mind-body connection with aromatherapy and a guided meditation from Kimi Marin

Eating disorder recovery is filled with uncomfortable experiences as the mind learns to reconnect with the body.

When your child developed his or her eating disorder, the disorder came in as a coping mechanism to help deal with discomfort. Many of us who suffer from disordered eating find that the more we use starvation, binging and purging, the further we drift from any meaningful connection between our bodies and minds.

As your child heals from an eating disorder, it can be helpful for parents to have tools available to support the rocky rebuilding of the mind-body connection. There is no question that the reunion is deeply uncomfortable. Meditation and aromatherapy are both excellent ways to calm the nervous system and build a loving connection between mind and body.

Step 1: Find a quiet spot

Sit with your child in a calm location where you will not be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. Turn your phones on airplane mode and put them out of reach.

Step 2: Prepare the aromatherapy

Mix equal parts of lavender, cedarwood and sandalwood essential oils together. These oils are an excellent combination for soothing and calming. You can add the mix to any type of aromatherapy diffuser.

Step 3: Listen to the Meditation

Kimi Marin, yoga therapist, recorded a grounding meditation called “Getting Comfortable with Feeling Uncomfortable.” As you listen to the meditation, breathe in the essential oil scents and relax.


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Kimi Marin is a yoga therapist based in Portland, Oregon. Website