Eating disorders are a mental illness, which means they live in the mind. They speak to us in authoritative voices, telling us what is right and wrong, good and bad. If your child has an eating disorder, he or she is mainly hearing voices regarding what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat, when to eat, why to eat, why not to eat, etc. But as a parent, you can hear very different things from the eating disorder that may help you better understand what your child needs from you during the healing process and beyond. Here are a few things eating disorders can communicate to us on behalf of our children:
The world is crazy, and I don’t know how to live in it. I feel overwhelmed all the time, and it seems as if nothing I do is right. I feel so much pressure from all directions, and I just don’t know how to live anymore.
**When your child feels scared, eating food or restricting food may be a soothing mechanism that provides a sense of comfort and security. Work with him/her to build security, belonging and a sense of place.
I have no control
I feel out of control. I don’t know how to live right in the world. No matter what I do, it seems like someone else is always in charge, judging me. Everyone judges me. I don’t get to make my own decisions, and when I do, here comes the judgement again.
**When your child feels out of control in life, eating food or restricting food is a way to exert control over the one thing that is truly his/hers: the body. Work with him/her to build confidence that his/her decisions are valid, and find opportunities to exhibit control over difficult situations. Getting a job, caring for an animal or child, or volunteering can all be healthy ways to gain a sense of confidence and control in life.
I am too much
It’s as if I have no stopping point. I always want more, more more. Everyone tells me this. Whether it’s food or attention or affection or whatever, it’s as if I was built to need more than anyone else, and I can tell that people don’t like that about me. I’m just “too much.”
**When your child feels guilty for having big needs – both physical and emotional hunger – he or she may use eating or not eating as a way to seek fulfillment. Remind your child that his/her hungers are human, natural, and completely healthy. Fill the house with healthy ways to feed hunger, and make mealtimes an opportunity to enjoy the act of feeding yourselves. Anytime your child seeks approval, attention, or love, give it without question and say out loud that you are happy to provide emotional care.
I am different
Nobody understands me. In my family, at school, nowhere do people really understand who I really am. They can’t see the real me. And if they did, they would not like him/her anyway. I have to hide my true self just to get by.
**When your child uses their body (either making it larger or smaller) as a communication tool, it may mean that he/she is hiding a true self, a self that he/she feels cannot be expressed verbally. Work with your child to develop natural talents to build confidence and language around his/her strengths. Strengths make us different in a very positive way, and can be a wonderful way to expand on the idea that being different is not bad, but is actually wonderful.
I am unloveable as I am
I am totally gross. Nobody can stand to even look at me. I can’t stand to look at myself. I have to get better, or I will fail.
**Children, adolescents, and even many adults are unable to separate their physical self from their emotional self. Restricting eating with the goal of shrinking the body is often a way to signal an internal self that is pure, in control, and “good.” In such cases, weight is an attempt to be recognized as a good person who is worthy of love. Talk regularly with your child about his/her loveability. Let him/her know what is good, true and wonderful about him/her as a person. Do not talk about his/her body or other people’s bodies at all. Build a language to better express positive qualities of people that are not based on their external appearance.
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.