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Parental burnout and eating disorders

Parental burnout and eating disorders

If your child has an eating disorder, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with parental burnout. This describes a parent who is mentally and physically depleted. This depletion can lead you to feel like you are failing at parenting, and, unfortunately, parental burnout is associated with worse behavior from kids. This creates an unfortunate loop of the parent being burned out, the kids behaving badly, and the parent getting even more burned out, and on and on. 

There are many reasons to address parental burnout when there’s an eating disorder, but the three most important reasons are: 

  1. Parents who have burnout deserve care and support – they are no less important than their kids.
  2. Parents who are burned out are less able to support their child through recovery.
  3. Kids whose parents are burned out sense there is a problem and may act out more, making things even harder.

An eating disorder is a major family crisis, and a depleted parent will be less effective at getting through to the other side. But burnout is not your fault. It’s a failure in the systems that should be supporting you. I’m so sorry this is happening. I hate that we don’t have better systems of care so that you don’t have to be burned out. But this is where things stand today: if you have a child with an eating disorder, you are probably burned out.

So I’ll give you some ideas for what you can do to help yourself recover from parental burnout. But first, let’s get started with more about what parental burnout is and its impact on family life. I’m afraid that if you don’t fully understand the consequences of burnout you won’t get the care you need to succeed.

What is parental burnout?

Feeling stressed while parenting is normal and expected. But parental burnout goes beyond expected levels of fatigue and means that you are exhausted and overwhelmed. When you are burned out, you struggle to function. 

When you become burned out, your ability to respond to both everyday and high-level stressors is reduced. Parents who are burned out feel physically and emotionally unable to connect with their kids, which can, unfortunately, lead to even more struggles with parenting. 

A 2021 study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that parental burnout has reached dangerously high levels since the Covid-19 pandemic began, particularly for working parents. The study found that: 

  • 66% of parents report feeling burned out
  • Women are more likely to feel burned out than men
  • Parental burnout is increased in households with 2-3 children, plateaued with 4-5 children, and increased again with 6 or more children
  • 77% of parents who had a child with ADHD and 73% of parents who had a child with anxiety reported parental burnout
  • 72% of parents who were concerned that their child could have an undiagnosed mental health condition reported burnout

Basically, burnout is common and responsive to how many kids you have and whether your kids have mental disorders.

What is the impact of parental burnout on kids?

Parental burnout can make it feel impossible to drag yourself through the day and you may feel like a failure in every aspect of your life. I’m so sorry about that. Unfortunately, parental burnout also impacts kids, which typically means they get even harder to manage than before. This can feel like an impossible situation, but don’t worry: I’m going to give you some solutions soon! 

Parental burnout is strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol and substance use in the parent. Parents who are burned out are more likely to insult, scream at, criticize, and spank kids. All of these factors have significant negative impacts on kids’ behavior. In other words, when parents do these things, kids get even harder to handle, leading to even more burnout. It’s a vicious cycle.

Kids whose parents are burned out are more likely to exhibit attention issues, internalizing behaviors, and externalizing behaviors. Here’s what this looks like:  

Attention behaviors:

  • Fidgety, unable to sit still
  • Daydreams or zones out too much
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Is easily distracted

Internalizing behaviors:

  • Feels sad or unhappy
  • Is down on themselves
  • Worries a lot
  • Feels hopeless
  • Seems to be having less fun

Externalizing behaviors

  • Refuses to share and may take things that don’t belong to them
  • Does not understand other people’s feelings
  • Fights with other children
  • Blames others for their troubles
  • Teases others

Source: Journal of Pediatric Psychology

And while I don’t have direct data linking parental burnout to eating disorder behaviors, you probably recognize some of the above symptoms in your child. They are all signs of distress, and while there can be a lot of reasons that kids are distressed, having a parent who is burned out is a major stressor for any child.

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Why is parental burnout common when kids have an eating disorder?

It’s probably pretty obvious why parents who have a child with an eating disorder are at high risk of parental burnout. The constant stress of having a child with a major mental disorder is exhausting, and it can feel as if you have no options. The healthcare system does an inadequate job of helping parents who have kids with eating disorders cope. In fact, many times there is no support for parents or the advice is ignorant and even harmful. It’s rough. I’m so sorry. 

Based on the data available, we know that 72% of parents who worry their child has an undiagnosed mental health condition, 77% of parents who have a child with ADHD, and 73% of parents who have a child with anxiety report they are suffering from burnout. I think it’s safe to say that at the bare minimum 72% of parents who have kids with eating disorders have burnout, though I would guess it’s even higher based on my experience. 

And it’s no wonder. Our healthcare system is not structured to adequately and comprehensively care for people who have eating disorders and their families.

Recipe for parental burnout with an eating disorder

Burnout was initially recognized in the workplace. Here’s the recipe for burnout when you’re facing an eating disorder:

  • Lack of control: having a child with an eating disorder means you feel you are unable to influence their health, and you may lack the resources you need to parent effectively.

  • Unclear job expectations: you are likely unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your child who has an eating disorder, their treatment team, your other children, your spouse, and others expect from you. It’s unlikely you feel comfortable while parenting, which is stressful.

  • Dysfunctional dynamics: you may feel bullied by the eating disorder, micromanaged by your child’s anxiety, criticized by your other children, and undermined by your partner or spouse. This contributes to parenting stress.

  • Extreme activity: parenting with an eating disorder is typically chaotic. The constant demands placed on you, combined with the fear and anxiety about your child’s disorder demand intense energy in order for you to remain focused on the task at hand, which can lead to fatigue.

  • Lack of social support: most parents who have a child with an eating disorder feel isolated and unable to talk about what they are dealing with when talking to friends and family members. This lack of support leads to more stress.

  • Imbalance: parenting a child with a mental health condition takes up so much time and effort that it seems impossible to invest energy in your own needs and pursue activities that fill you up. As a result, you can easily feel depleted. 

How do you know if you have parental burnout when dealing with an eating disorder?

Many times you can sense that you are burned out. It’s completely fine to self-diagnose yourself. In general, be on the lookout for these symptoms of burnout: 

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleep and/or appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling like a failure
  • The sense that you are underwater
  • Complete overwhelm

What sets parental burnout apart from regular stress is that it negatively impacts daily functioning. Basically, you are less productive and effective and struggle to accomplish tasks that used to feel manageable.

Here’s a survey you can take: Parental Burnout Survey. This is a 10-question survey developed by Ohio State University for their study. It focuses on working parents, but go ahead and take the survey even if you don’t work outside the home.

What can you do if you are burned out from parenting a child with an eating disorder?

I know you have a lot going on with your child’s eating disorder. And while you need to continue the work of helping your child recover, you also need to care for yourself. As you know, when parents are burned out, kids do worse, not better. So if your lifestyle right now is leading you to burnout, then it’s essential that you get the support you need and deserve to feel better. Recovering from burnout takes effort, which is cruel since the primary symptom of burnout is the lack of energy to do anything. But you need to invest in yourself to recover from burnout. The consequences of not recovering are serious, so please reach out for help! 

Recovering from burnout is not unlike recovering from an eating disorder. It is essential to your health and wellness, and when you are burned out, everyone suffers. So this is not optional or selfish. You need to recover from burnout to operate effectively as a parent. Here are some ideas: 

1. Do less

It’s time to “Marie Kondo” your life. You probably have a lot on your plate right now. And there are a lot of things that were previously enjoyable and wonderful that may not be bringing you joy right now. Look at your life critically and decide what you can stop doing. This is urgent. Can you stop driving the kids to school? Maybe your child can unload the dishwasher so you can stop doing it. Can your neighbor walk your dog? List as many things as possible that you can stop doing, and stop doing them immediately. This can be temporary for as long as you’re dealing with the eating disorder, but don’t skimp on this step, as it is essential! You cannot reduce burnout if you don’t reduce what’s on your plate.

2. Non-negotiable self-care

No matter how busy you are, you have to prioritize non-negotiable self-care. Seriously. You don’t have the option of not taking care of yourself, because taking care of yourself is essential to taking care of your child who has an eating disorder. Sleep at least 7 hours per night. Move your body for at least 10 minutes per day. Drink 6-8 glasses of water. Feed yourself at least every 3-4 hours. And, most importantly, connect physically and/or emotionally with someone for 10 minutes per day. This could be asking your partner to cuddle with you on the couch (just make sure you aren’t doing anything else like scrolling through your phone). It could be calling a friend to talk about a TV plot line or crying about how hard your day was. If you can’t fit these essential self-care steps into your life, then go back to step 1 and figure out what you need to stop doing.

3. Take breaks

Even a 5-10 minute break a few times per day will help. During these mini-breaks, listen to your body. What feels right? Consider staring into space, guided meditation, stretching, drinking a cold glass of water or a hot cup of tea, walking around the block, or maybe dancing to Rage Against the Machine or the Mama Mia soundtrack. Do whatever feels good to you at the moment – make sure it is something that only benefits you! It doesn’t count as a break if you’re doing it for someone else.

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4. Give yourself more love

Most of us are really mean to ourselves, and it often gets worse when we are burned out. We would never speak to our friends the way we criticize and berate ourselves. Start talking to yourself as if you are your best friend. Be kind, thoughtful, and understanding when things aren’t working out for you. Practice self-compassion. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion perform at much higher levels than those who do not. But even if there were no productivity benefits, being nice to yourself is the right thing to do!

5. Talk about it

Stay connected to family and friends, and pick at least one person to whom you can talk about the eating disorder. Shame thrives in secrecy, so bring it out of the shadows and talk about your experience with the eating disorder. It can be tricky to figure out the boundaries here, but a good rule of thumb is that you get to tell your story of the eating disorder, but not your child’s story of the eating disorder (because that’s theirs). It may be helpful to tell your friend in advance whether you’re looking for advice or just a compassionate ear. Hint: most of the time you’ll just want them to listen.

6. Ask for help

I know it’s hard, but you need to expand your help networks. Ask for help with meals, childcare, driving, and everything else you are struggling to fit into your day. Reach out to family and friends, neighbors, and online communities. We are social creatures, and we’re not supposed to handle life alone. Think of how good it feels when a good friend asks you for help, and remember that when we ask for help our friends usually feel honored and will help if they can. When you’re burned out you tend to get tunnel vision, and you believe that you have to personally do everything. This is a cognitive distortion. Reach out and get the help your community can give you.

5. Get professional support

Dealing with an eating disorder is not a small undertaking. Most of our care systems focus almost entirely on the person who has the eating disorder, but that leaves parents in the dark and they become prime candidates for burnout. Find a coach or therapist who can work with you to help you understand the eating disorder, your role, and how you can help your child recover. You don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) do this alone!

If you are suffering from parental burnout while your child has an eating disorder, it makes perfect sense. Please get the support and resources you need to start feeling better!


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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The risks of accommodating an eating disorder

The risks of accommodating an eating disorder

Rachel was at the end of her rope. After years of trying to help her daughter Lily claw her way out of anorexia, it simply wasn’t getting any better.

Sure, there was COVID to blame. The pandemic made Lily even more socially isolated, and online treatment didn’t seem to be as effective. But overall, Rachel knew that Lily’s problem pre-dated the pandemic. And she was worried that it would extend way beyond the pandemic if something didn’t change fast. 

“The truth is that I’m completely burned out,” says Rachel. “This is my last hope. If this doesn’t work, I really don’t know what I’ll do or how I’ll keep this up. Something’s got to give.” 

Rachel has decided to try a treatment program called SPACE that focuses on changing her own behavior rather than trying to change Lily’s behavior.

“It’s just been a brick wall to try and convince Lily to recover,” says Rachel. “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but she just isn’t choosing recovery. She’s not taking any steps on her own to get better.”

Rachel is struggling under the caregiving burden. “When she was younger, she was a bit more self-sufficient, and being at school motivated her,” says Rachel. “But now she’s done with school, and she’s doing almost nothing. She lives with me, and I try to feed her six times per day like I’m supposed to. She’s nowhere close to feeding herself, and I can’t see her being able to get a job or move out.”

Rachel, like so many parents and caregivers, is terrified for her daughter. She’s also frustrated and fed up. Her diligent, valiant work feels like a drop in the bucket. The eating disorder is powerful, and she’s losing hope.

What is accommodation?

When someone is afraid of something, they naturally want to avoid it. 

Parental accommodation is a way that parents make it easier for their children to avoid doing the things that scare them. 

If your child screams when they see a spider, you whisk it away quickly and then soothe your child, trying to calm them down as soon as possible. This accommodation makes perfect sense.

But the next day, your child asks you to check under their bed for spiders before going to sleep. This, too, makes sense to you. You accommodate their wishes – it’s not a big deal! 

But the next day, your child asks you to check that their windows are locked tightly and check under the bed, scan the walls, and peer into the darkest corners of the closet with a flashlight to ensure there are no spiders. 

The accommodation snowball effect

You can see where this is going. Your child’s fear of spiders makes sense. But their avoidance of possibly encountering a spider ever again is becoming a problem. Even though you sense it’s wrong, you can’t imagine not accommodating them because they get so upset just thinking about spiders. It seems faster and easier to do what they ask than to convince them to go to sleep without it.

Sometimes you try to talk your child out of it. You prepare deeply-researched and highly-rational arguments to persuade them that spiders aren’t scary or dangerous. Sometimes you lose your temper and yell that you aren’t their personal spider valet and you won’t do this tomorrow night … this is the last time! 

But, of course, the next night, your child cries and seems so terrified that you give in one more time and look in all the nooks and crannies. Later they come into your room at midnight, wake you up, and beg you to check again.

You’re half asleep, and it seems like less trouble to just look than to try and convince your child there are no spiders, so you grudgingly get up, stomping your feet and huffing as you walk to their room and look in all the corners for spiders. 

You’re feeling angry, but you can’t see a way out of accommodating your child’s avoidance of possibly seeing a spider. You feel trapped and frustrated, stuck in a web.

How does accommodating impact eating disorders?

I started with a spider story because it feels less charged than an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex, multi-layered mental disorders. Also, parents are not responsible for either their child’s fear of spiders or their eating disorder. It typically doesn’t work that way.

But parents may be responsible for accommodating their child’s anxiety-driven eating disorder behaviors.

Parental accommodation is called a “maintaining factor” in eating disorders. This means that it is not the cause of an eating disorder. But accommodation can make it easier for an eating disorder to dig its heels in and stick around for the long haul.

Eating disorder accommodation examples

There are many ways parents accidentally accommodate eating disorder behaviors. Let’s break down how accommodating can sneak into some of the common eating disorder recovery goals:  

  • Goal: have the child eat regular, healthy meals.
  • Accommodation: the child cries and yells at the dinner table. The parent becomes so distressed that they excuse the child before the meal is finished.
  • Goal: cut down on ingredient checking and calorie counting
  • Accommodation: the child refuses to eat until they know exactly how many calories are in the yogurt. It just seems easier and faster to tell them.
  • Goal: have the child eat various foods, not a limited menu of “safe food.”
  • Accommodation: when serving meals, the parent doesn’t offer new foods. They know their child will throw a fit or simply refuse to eat. Sometimes they try to add something new to the plate, but it goes so badly that they rarely do this.
  • Goal: have the child eat comfortably with other people.
  • Accommodation: the child becomes so upset about the idea of multiple people at the dinner table that the parents feed the child separately. Or they excuse the child from family meals because they are so distressed.
  • Goal: for the child to accept their body and not worry about its appearance.
  • Accommodation: when the child asks if they look bad, the parent freezes and ignores the question. Then, when the child doesn’t stop, the parent says in a falsely cheerful voice, “you’re just being silly – of course you’re beautiful!”
  • Goal: the child attends scheduled meetings with professionals.
  • Accommodation: the child insists that the therapist is useless. The nutritionist makes them eat unhealthy food, and the doctor is fatphobic and clueless. The parent spends hours every week convincing the child to attend just one more meeting. They use bribes and rewards, which work only some of the time.

All of these parental responses make perfect sense. If you do these things, you are not bad! Occasional accommodations make sense. But it can be a problem if parents repeat the same accommodation at every meal and/or the list of accommodations keeps growing. We want to stop accommodating eating disorder behavior even though it’s really, really uncomfortable for both the parent and the child. 

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How can parents stop accommodating?

Parents can stop accommodating eating disorder behaviors, but it takes some careful thought, a solid strategy, and practice. It’s not a good idea to remove all your accommodations at once. A strategic, steady approach is best. 

First, you need to understand how you are accommodating the eating disorder behaviors and why you are accommodating. You will naturally think you are accommodating to avoid your child’s distress. But you are also accommodating to avoid your distress about your child’s distress. Make sense?

When your child yells and screams or slams their door in your face, you feel upset. You worry that your child will never get better. Of course you do!

This is what drives the accommodation. You want to avoid your child’s upsetting outburst, so you do whatever you can to avoid it. 

Start with you

Understanding your own worry is the first step to addressing and ending accommodation. Because ending accommodation is all about what you do. How your child responds must be relatively unimportant and not change your approach. 

You will take unilateral action to remove your accommodation lovingly and compassionately. And your child is going to be distressed. Both of you will be able to handle this distress. But you may need some support to prepare and get through it.

Next, you will pick a specific accommodation and make a detailed plan to stop doing it. You’ll tell your child what you’re going to do, why you’re doing it, and when you’ll begin doing it. 

Finally, you’ll follow through. You’ll stay steady even in the face of your child’s worry and anguish. This will be hard, but you know that continuing the accommodation, while possibly easier in the short term, will not help in the long term.

You’ll stay dedicated and single-minded in your commitment not to accommodate eating disorder behaviors anymore. Over time, your child will learn your boundaries. Your child will feel less anxious. You’ll interrupt the anxious cycle of an eating disorder and invite recovery to take root.

Rachel and Lily

Rachel was terrified of ending even her most minor accommodations. For example, she told Lily what was in her smoothie every day. This was happening even though it was exactly the same every day.

She made a plan and told Lily that she would not answer smoothie ingredient questions anymore. Lily asked a few times on the first day, and Rachel was near tears but held her boundary lovingly. 

The next day, Lily asked ten times and started to cry when Rachel held her compassionate boundary. She refused to drink her smoothie. Rachel worried that she was making a mistake or doing it wrong.

But on the third day, Lily asked Rachel once, then, shockingly, drank her smoothie. 

Progress!

“I nearly fell out of my chair,” says Rachel. “I couldn’t believe it didn’t keep getting worse.”

Lily asked about the smoothie ingredients every few days throughout the next few weeks. And if it was an especially stressful day, she asked several times in a row. But Rachel was confident that not reviewing the ingredients was the right thing to do to help Lily recover, so she held her boundary lovingly and firmly.

Over time, Rachel removed more and more accommodations. Some were easier than others, but she could see the benefits. Mealtimes were less stressful for Rachel, which meant she could better support Lily through the stress of eating. 

“I feel more hopeful today than I’ve felt in five years,” says Rachel. “This is the biggest improvement I’ve seen in a long time. I feel like I’m really getting the hang of not accommodating her eating disorder behaviors. I’m focusing on controlling myself rather than trying to control her.”


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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

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Health myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders

Myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders

So many of our cultural health norms are not actually healthy, which is why I’ve put together a list of the four health myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders.

Look, it’s not our fault that we’re confused about health. We’re surrounded by powerful industries that create and reinforce health myths. We have the diet industry, the food industry, and the fitness, beauty, and fashion industries. They are all motivated and skilled at making us believe they have the answer to being healthy. But while health does require the basics: food, housing, and food, consumer goods are not the path to health. Health is an inside job.

Raising healthy kids

Jon and Theresa always wanted the very best for their two kids. Theresa is a nurse and Jon runs marathons. Together, they thought they knew what to do to raise healthy kids. But now that their kids are tweens, they see signs of disordered eating.

“My first hint that something was wrong was when whole containers of peanut butter and loaves of bread would disappear,” says Theresa. “We don’t keep candy, cookies, or chips in the house, but when we went to parties I would see my kids hovering over the food table, grabbing every bit of junk food they could get their hands on. It was shocking to see them put away so much food so quickly. I tell them they will get stomachaches, but they don’t stop. It seems like they have a limitless capacity for junk food.”

Jon agreed. “At first I thought that meant we needed even stricter rules, but now I’m not so sure. It seems like maybe we’ve raised them in such a carefully-managed environment that they just go crazy when they’re out in the real world. I just don’t know how we can keep them healthy anymore – my rules don’t seem to be working very well.”

The relationship is what matters

Often parents worry so much about feeding kids a “junk-free” diet. But in doing so they don’t realize that their kids’ relationship with food and their body is what’s most important. And without a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, kids are susceptible to disordered eating and eating disorders.

Theresa and Jon are worried that their older daughter is developing binge eating disorder. “She’s eating a lot more than usual at night and then skipping breakfast and lunch almost every day,” says Jon. “Sometimes we catch her in the pantry at night, and she seems so desperate and unhappy. Last night she was sobbing in my arms about how much weight she is gaining. I told her she’s beautiful, but it didn’t help.”

“I realize that we have created a lot of food rules and restrictions in our house, and even though our goal was health, it’s not working out so well,” says Theresa. “We both grew up with SpaghettiOs, Pop-Tarts, Top Ramen, and frozen pizzas and burritos, and maybe being so strict with food as parents was an overcorrection.”

Theresa and Jon are not alone. We want to do everything we can to raise healthy kids, but sometimes common health advice gets in the way of them having a positive relationship with food and their body. Even though health myths are everywhere, parents can safely ignore most of them, especially if they want to prevent eating disorders. Health doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s not easy parenting in the midst of all these health myths. But we can do it!

Here are the four parenting myths you can ignore to prevent eating disorders:

Myth 1: my kids will never stop eating sugar and junk

There is a powerful myth in our culture that kids, and all people, are insatiably drawn to sugar and “junk” food. And while there is plenty of evidence that food companies strategically create food that appeals to our genetic predisposition to eating lots of life-giving calories, this doesn’t tell the full story.

Yes, our bodies are very attracted to sweet, salty, and fat-filled food. But bodies are not naturally insatiable unless they are experiencing restriction (famine). In fact, it’s becoming increasingly understood that eating an entire sleeve of Oreos is more likely based on the fact that you have negative beliefs about the Oreos and have told yourself not to eat them than the Oreos themselves. You read that right: restriction, not access to delicious food, breeds binge eating.

There are many people who raise kids using Intuitive Eating and/or Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence method. With these eating styles, people feed themselves healthfully but don’t avoid foods(except for allergies), eat according to appetite, and don’t use weight as a measurement of success. These styles of eating have been associated with the highest levels of health across multiple domains, from cardiovascular to mental health. They are also protective against eating disorders.

Parents should serve kids regular meals featuring a variety of food. Meals should include starches, fats, vegetables/fruits, protein, and dairy (if there’s no lactose intolerance). To avoid binge eating or an unhealthy relationship with food, serve desserts and other tasty, highly palatable foods as part of your regular rotation. 

I know it’s hard to believe, but when you serve all the foods, you’ll raise kids who naturally modulate their food intake and don’t suffer from a scarcity mentality that drives binge eating and/or dieting and restriction. The best thing you can do for your child’s physical and mental health is to raise them to have a healthy relationship with food.

Myth 2: I need to lose weight to be healthy

We live in a culture that is cruel to bodies, so it’s not unusual for parents to be actively working to lose weight with diet and fitness programs. Or on the other hand, parents may feel so discouraged that they don’t feed their bodies well, move them enough, or otherwise treat them with kindness and respect. 

Disliking and tearing apart our bodies and trying to achieve health with weight loss is a cultural obsession that is linked to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Surprisingly, intentional weight loss is not associated with increased health and is associated with higher lifetime BMI

There are many myths linking weight loss to health, when in fact it is the most common precursor to weight gain and eating disorders.

Ask yourself: 

  • Am I actively trying to lose weight?
  • Would other people judge my exercise program as intense or extreme?
  • Do I think I need to lose weight?
  • Am I struggling with binge eating?
  • Would other people say that my eating is “pure,” “clean,” or otherwise admirable based on social media standards?
  • Am I avoiding events and celebrations because I feel ashamed of my body?
  • Before attending events and celebrations, do I try to lose weight so I look better?
  • Do I have bad body thoughts almost all day, every day?

One of the most important things we can do to prevent eating disorders is to heal our own relationship with food and our body. Our children listen when we groan and complain about our bellies, thighs, and other body parts. Our children are watching when we limit our dinner to a salad with no dressing. They know when our exercise is more compulsive than pleasurable.

It’s best if we can adopt a non-diet approach to health. This is not “letting ourselves go,” it is respecting our bodies. This includes eating healthfully (see what that means above), and movement, which is great for almost all bodies. But dieting to lose weight or adopting extreme fitness programs can have serious consequences for our own bodies and our kids.

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Myth 3: I need to manage my kid’s weight

The essential health behaviors we need to manage for our kids are:

  • Meals and snacks: serve a variety of foods regularly, reliably, and in a pleasant environment
  • Movement: provide access to free play, P.E., individual/team sports, and/or family physical activities like hiking or dancing together in the living room
  • Sleep: depending on their age, our kids need 8-12 hours of sleep. Sleep is essential for both mental and physical health and should be carefully managed.

But should parents “manage” kids’ weight? Should we monitor it and restrict their food and/or increase exercise if their weight increases or has always been higher than we’d like it to be?

The simple answer is clear: no. The idea that parents need to control kids’ weight is one of the most harmful myths contributing to eating disorders.

And I’m not coddling kids by saying this. The most common outcome of parents who restrict kids’ food with the goal of weight loss is actually higher lifetime weight. That’s right: attempts to control weight actually increase weight. Dieting and weight control in childhood and adolescence predict higher BMI in adulthood. This is because of a syndrome called weight-cycling.

Basically, when you intentionally lose weight, your body kicks in a bunch of biological systems to deal with the perceived famine. Your body has many non-conscious methods such as slowing your metabolism and extracting every single calorie from your diet to try and maintain homeostasis. It will do everything it can to get you back to the weight you were before, often with a little extra to keep you safe.

Restrictive diets and intentional weight loss are both strong predictors of an eating disorder.

It makes sense in our society that parents worry about kids’ weight. Nonetheless, parents should not try to manage or reduce kids’ weight. Focus on healthful feeding, enjoyable movement, and sleep, and trust your child’s body to settle into the weight it’s meant to be.

Myth 4: health is something I can see

Multi-billion dollar industries are dedicated to convincing us that health is visible. After all, if we believe that health is something we can see, we are more likely to buy the products that promise to make us look healthier. Gorgeous models are hired and Photoshopped to sell us the idea that beauty and thinness equal health. But it’s simply not true.

The myths saying we can see health by observing someone’s weight contribute to eating disorders. Health is an inside job. Heavier people are just as likely to be healthy as thinner people. People who are not gorgeous can be just as healthy as gorgeous people. So what can parents actually do to improve kids’ health? Raise your kids in a healthy environment by following these guidelines: 

  1. Don’t diet and don’t let kids diet (dieting is associated with weight gain and eating disorders)
  2. Feed kids healthfully (using Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence model)
  3. Get kids moving for fun and function (with friends and with you)
  4. Protect kids’ sleep (meet the minimum age-based requirements)
  5. Build healthy emotional connections with your children (enjoy them and make family time meaningful and fun)
  6. Help kids learn to self-regulate their emotions (begin by co-regulating with them to build this skill)

These are the basic foundations of health. If you achieve these six things, your child has the structure and support they need to be healthy. And if problems arise, as they probably will, you’ll have the tools to help your child feel better soon.

Moving forward

Theresa and Jon are getting parent coaching to help them build a food- and body-friendly household for their kids. They’re working on being a lot more flexible with how they define health and developing new communication and emotional skills. They can see that certain health myths were increasing their kids’ risk of eating disorders.

Their daughter has responded well to their changes. She is eating more regular meals and experiencing fewer binge-eating episodes. There is less stress around food and she can comfortably eat a few cookies without feeling the urge to binge eat all of them and then restrict afterward to try and make up for it.

Last week they went to an annual family event that is known for its delicious and formerly forbidden foods. This year, Jon and Theresa noticed that their kids ate and enjoyed the food, but they also spent far more time with their cousins. They were not chained to the food table, but rather socialized and enjoyed themselves.

Both kids are more relaxed around food. It took a little bit of time, but now they are showing all the signs of being competent eaters. Eating is a lot more fun and less stressful for everyone. And Jon and Theresa feel more confident and secure that they are raising their kids in a truly healthy environment.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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

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SMART goals parents can set in eating disorder recovery

SMART goals parents can set when kids return to college after an eating disorder

Vicky is feeling really nervous because her 19-year-old Alex (they/them) wants to go back to college after eating disorder treatment. Alex is highly motivated to get back to school and manage their own life, but Vicky feels deeply unsure about exactly how that will work. 

“I can’t get over the memory of having to hospitalize them and put them in inpatient treatment last year,” says Vicky. “It was traumatic for all of us, and right now I can’t even imagine feeling good enough to send them back to school even though they say that’s what’s motivating them to recover right now.”

Vicky struggles to balance being a responsible mom with the freedom Alex wants. She wants to get clear about what Alex needs to do to show her that they are ready to go back to college.

I suggested coming up with some goals that will help Vicky feel better about sending Alex so far away again. I recommend using SMART goals for eating disorder recovery, since they are specific and attainable, and there can be no doubt as to whether they are achieved. They’re also motivating because Alex will be able to see a pathway to freedom from parental oversight.

What are SMART goals? 

SMART goals are often used in business and education settings to help employees and students set and achieve measurable goals. The key to SMART goals is that they are very specific and work well when you have large goals that you want to break down into smaller steps. 

SMART is an acronym that stands for “specific,” “measurable,” “attainable,” “relevant,” and “time-bound.” Every SMART goal features these essential elements to ensure the goal can be reached to satisfy both the child who will take action towards the goal and the parent who wants to see the goal achieved.

Specific: What is the goal? 

The goal should be well-defined, clear, and unambiguous. For example, it’s not enough to say “eat enough.” If the goal is to eat, get specific, like “eat 3 meals and 2 snacks every day.”

Measurable: How will I measure progress?

The goal should have specific criteria that measure progress. For example, if the goal is 3 meals and 2 snacks daily, the child could text a photo of each to their parent or dietitian.

Attainable: Do I have the resources & skills for it? 

The goal should be something that is attainable and not impossible. It should be within the child’s capacity to do. In the eating example, the child needs access to food and a smartphone.

Relevant: Why is this goal important? 

The goal should be an important step toward self-management. It should matter to you and your child. In the eating example, maintaining regular meals and snacks is a major part of being a competent eater, and thus makes sense as a relevant goal.

Time-Bound: When will I achieve the goal I’ve set?

The goal should have a clearly defined timeline, including a start date and a target date. For example, if they send photos of all three meals and snacks every day for eight weeks, you may set a new SMART goal that gives them less oversight in the next stage.

Why are SMART goals important? 

SMART goals are important because they help parents:

  • Set clear intentions, not broad or vague goals
  • Feel confident about the child’s path to self-management
  • Focus on the specific behaviors that support recovery
  • Measure progress with specific benchmarks
  • Provide sensible objectives that are realistic and achievable
  • Avoid the distraction of a long list of goals that is hard to manage
  • Be clear about the timeline and next steps if goals are met

SMART goals increase your child’s pursuit of self-management by making your expectations really clear and unambiguous. Your college-age child wants to get out from under parental control, so setting SMART goals gives them a clear path to doing that. These goals communicate that you believe your child can succeed but also gives you the confidence to let them go away to college.

How can SMART goals help with eating disorder recovery?

SMART goals can help with eating disorder recovery, especially for college students, because they help both the child and the parents get what they need. The child wants autonomy and to return to their life back at college. But the parents want assurance that the eating disorder is not active and putting their child in danger.

Vicky was really excited about using SMART goals for Alex. “I feel like this is going to really help us put together a plan that feels good for all of us,” she says. “Alex would much prefer zero controls, and I get that, but I need something to make sure I’m not being reckless or thoughtless when sending them back to school.”

Working on SMART goals

Vicky worked on three SMART goals that she felt were important. Since they are in family therapy and Vicky was unsure how Alex would respond, she brought up the idea during a family therapy session. The therapist was encouraging and supportive of the idea, and Alex didn’t hate it. So the next week Vicky brought in the SMART goals worksheet. Together they worked with the therapist and Alex to make adjustments that felt good for everyone. 

“A big deal for Alex was the time-bound aspect, of course,” says Vicky. “Alex just wants to see a path out of being monitored all the time, and I feel like these SMART goals give us all the confidence to move forward. I want Alex to feel independent and free … and I want to be free of the eating disorder, too! This has absolutely taken over our lives, and I can’t wait to move into the next stage and reduce our monitoring.” 

This steady and clear approach to eating disorder recovery adds a lot of confidence and security for parents while also showing kids the steps they need to take to reclaim the independence they crave.

SMART goal template & examples

SMART goals for recovery example: eating

PLEASE NOTE: this is not intended as or delivered as medical advice. Please don’t make choices about your child’s recovery without consulting their treatment team. Make sure your SMART goals are appropriate and make sense in the context of your child’s eating disorder recovery.

SMART goals for recovery example: therapy

How to make a SMART goal

Like Vicky, you may be excited about SMART goals and want to dive right in. I get it! I love SMART goals! Please just remember that while Vicky drafted some SMART goals, she checked with her family therapist before introducing them to her child. Depending on your child’s eating disorder recovery status, SMART goals may not be the right approach right now. Check with your child’s treatment team before presenting your child with SMART goals.

To make a SMART goal, begin by thinking of your big goal, then breaking it down into behaviors that will get you closer to the goal. With eating disorders, the big goal is “recovery,” but that’s hard to measure and it’s a state of being, not a behavior with measurable steps. If we make recovery the goal, we will struggle to measure and monitor it. Instead, break it down into attainable, measurable, and observable behaviors like:

  • Eating regular meals and snacks
  • Checking vital signs of health such as heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
  • Going to therapy and nutrition appointments
  • Getting blind-weighed if appropriate/necessary

Next, write down a few SMART goals that are “specific,” “measurable,” “attainable,” “relevant,” and “time-bound.” If the goal is eating regular meals and snacks, detail how many meals and snacks, and how the goal will be measured. The most common mistake is not being very specific about the goal. The more specific and measurable the goal, the greater your chances of success.

Vague GoalsSpecific Goals
Eat regularlyText photos of 3 meals and 2 snacks every day
Don’t lose weightGet blind-weighed once every two weeks*
Stay healthyGet your vital signs checked once every two weeks*
Take care of yourselfAttend weekly therapy and nutrition sessions

*the frequency will vary based on your child’s current medical status and is here as an example only. Please consult your child’s treatment team to set goals that make sense for their individual recovery path.

Measuring success

The most motivating eating disorder goals are those that provide a pathway out of being monitored. Show your child the path to self-management by setting multi-stage SMART goals. 

For example, if the first goal is for them to attend therapy weekly for 8 weeks, that doesn’t mean you stop all therapy if they reach that goal. Maybe the next goal is that they switch to every 2 weeks for 8 weeks after that, then monthly. A stepped approach will provide the safest structure for recovery

SMART goals should never feel punitive or shameful. The value of providing time-bound goals is so your child knows what will happen when they meet the goal. But you should not say you are disappointed if your child does not achieve the goal by a certain date. That’s why I suggest using consecutive weeks rather than a specific date. Just count the weeks that they do accomplish the goal. If they skip a week, then you start again at 0. Once they do it every week in a row for the number of weeks specified you can celebrate and set a new goal. 

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Setting the clock

For example, Alex might text photos of their meals every day for two weeks in a row, then skip a few days during the third week. Alex is not bad for doing this. It’s understandable. However, that resets the clock back to 0. Once Alex texts all meals/snacks for 7 days, that puts the clock at 1. If the goal is 8 weeks, then Alex must text all meals/snacks for 7 days in a row for 8 weeks in a row to meet the goal. 

Avoid being flexible or changing the goal, because it will show your child that the goals are open for negotiation and debate. This is a slippery slope that eating disorders love to take advantage of. Instead, maintain clear, compassionate boundaries. It sucks for all of you to start at 0 again. But that’s how you make sure you aren’t accidentally accommodating the eating disorder.

Celebrating success

I checked in with Vicky after Alex had been back at college for a semester. She had been both hopeful and terrified of the return to college. And I’m pretty sure Alex felt many of the same feelings! 

Alex struggled a little bit with the transition back to school, which we expected and had prepared for. But after 4 weeks of being inconsistent with their progress, Alex stayed on track and they are almost ready to set new SMART goals that give Alex more freedom and autonomy. 

Vicky says that having SMART goals is a huge relief for her. “I just feel like I have some level of insight into what’s going on for them at college. Now I can keep an eye on their health and safety when they’re so far away from me.”


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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

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How to stop nagging and negotiating with your kid who has an eating disorder

Get your kid with an eating disorder to eat without nagging and negotiating

If your kid has an eating disorder, then there’s a good chance you are constantly nagging and negotiating with them to eat. How many reminders have you given your child this week? A certain level of reminding is to be expected. But if it feels constant and never-ending, then it’s probably time to make a change. This is because of two things: 

  1. Constantly reminding your child to do things is exhausting, especially when you’ve already explained why it’s important a thousand times. Reminding your kid to do something as essential as eating is a huge burden on you that will lead to burnout.
  1. When you nag and negotiate with your child to eat, you are essentially “owning” their food and eating, meaning they are not taking responsibility for their own nourishment and recovery. While this helps for short-term problems, it’s ineffective for long-term issues.

Maybe you lean more towards negotiation: “Eat just one more bite and then you can be finished.” Or “If you eat this, you don’t have to eat that.” 

Or perhaps you find yourself nagging: “Did you remember to eat?” “Please remember to eat!” Or “You have to eat fat and carbs!”

Either way, if you feel as if you’re in an endless loop of negotiation and nagging, it doesn’t mean you’re not trying hard enough. It’s just a sign your current system isn’t working.

Changing exactly how you ask your child to do something might help a little bit in the short term, but often the issue is a lot more complicated and relates to how eating disorders work and how our best intentions can sometimes get in the way of recovery.

If you find yourself exhausted by the constant nagging and reminding, here are some ideas to get you and your child to a different level.

SPACE treatment for eating disorders

The SPACE treatment stands for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. It’s a research-backed program to help parents stop accommodating or enabling eating disorder behaviors and start making it really uncomfortable for them.

I’ve adapted SPACE for eating disorders (BED, EDNOS, bulimia, anorexia, and ARFID) because of two things. First, anxiety drives most eating disorder behaviors. People who have eating disorders are often genetically predisposed to be highly-reactive, and therefore more sensitive to anxiety. Food restriction, rejection, and rituals are powerful coping mechanisms for anxiety and distress. Second, parental accommodation, which includes nagging and negotiating, has been identified as a maintaining factor in eating disorders. It has been associated with greater symptom severity and caregiver burden. SPACE addresses both your child’s anxiety and parental accommodation.

Beyond getting your child into treatment and feeding them regularly, eliminating parental accommodation is one of the most powerful actions you can take to stop the eating disorder. The best part is that removing parental accommodation does not require the child to be engaged or motivated to change. It’s entirely up to you.

In this article, I’ll take a look at some ways parents can use the SPACE approach to stop accommodating eating disorder behaviors.

1. See nagging for what it is 

When there’s an eating disorder you probably have spent time nagging and negotiating about food and eating. Over time, this is exhausting for parents and can actually make kids more (not less) resistant to eating.

Most parents who nag and negotiate believe that if they just say the right thing a switch will go off in their kids’ heads and they’ll start to eat. These parents are trying valiantly to convince their children that eating is good and healthy and that the kid should do it. 

But if you have any experience with this, then you know that it rarely works.

Nagging and negotiating about eating and food are a sign that your system is not working. You’re tired, and your kid isn’t changing. It’s not that you aren’t trying hard enough. Or that you haven’t said the right thing yet. It’s that you’re using the wrong approach.    

In SPACE for Eating Disorders treatment, we work on stopping the endless loop of nagging and negotiating. Parents learn to create clear interpersonal boundaries and attend to the underlying drivers and beneath-the-surface communication that’s going on every time you and your kid start to butt heads.

2. Make what’s unseen, seen

An eating disorder loves the shadows. All it really wants is to be able to exist and flourish without a lot of talk or disruption. It believes that it’s got things under control and that your involvement is threatening and unnecessary. But the last thing you want to do is adhere to an eating disorder’s demands for secrecy. In fact, you want to do the opposite: bring disordered behaviors into the light and talk about them openly.

Of course, it’s very important to not be critical or threatening toward the eating disorder. There’s a huge difference between criticism and observation, and they are mortal enemies. You want to be respectful of the eating disorder while calmly observing what’s going on. 

“Oh, it seems like you’re feeling upset about eating right now. I get that it’s hard, but I’m 100% confident you can do this.” 

That’s very different from “Stop trying to hide food under your napkin! I can see what you’re doing!”

The former is supportive. The latter is threatening.

In SPACE for Eating Disorders treatment, we work on isolating a single behavior and figuring out exactly how parents will respond differently when it shows up. Then we write a letter to the child calmly and compassionately explaining the behavior and how the parents will respond from now on. This is an essential step in overcoming the eating disorder’s demands for secrecy and privacy.

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3. Don’t wait for them to get on board

One of the hardest things about having a child with an eating disorder is the persistent belief that the child must be “on board” in order for them to recover. And of course, your child will need to own recovery for themself. You can’t do that for them.

But that doesn’t mean you have to wait for your kid to get on board in order for you to make changes. You can start making changes today that will impact your child’s likelihood of considering and ultimately embracing recovery. 

Without parental changes, it’s much less likely that the child will even consider eating disorder recovery. Because as hard as it is to have an eating disorder, the idea of living without one is so terrifying that most people remain stuck in the loop of eating disorder behaviors. 

In SPACE for Eating Disorders treatment, parents make unilateral changes in their behavior. This means we determine the ways in which you are accommodating the eating disorder and you learn how to stop doing that. These changes are about your motivation and commitment. They do not require your child to change; only you. 

5. Don’t just say it, show it

Nagging and negotiation are all about what you say. But eating disorder behavior works on a much deeper level. In fact, anxiety-driven behavior barely responds to language. It’s a deep, animalistic instinct. It responds to action. 

This is why nagging and negotiating rarely change the course of an eating disorder. The drivers of the eating disorder are much deeper and more primitive than language. And the eating disorder actually enjoys pushing back against nagging and negotiating because it’s a great distraction from what’s really going on.

In SPACE for Eating Disorders treatment, parents learn to show how they want their child to behave rather than ask for compliance. This means parents stop talking so much and instead show calm, compassionate confidence even in the most violent emotional storm. 

6. Practice, not perfect

One of the biggest impediments to lasting change is when we think it’s an event instead of a process. Eating disorder recovery is not a single-day event. It’s something that your child will need to practice in some form for the rest of their lives.

Many parents feel some success if they need to nag and negotiate a bit less. They may think the eating disorder is in remission. But then something happens and it looks like their child is suddenly right back to where they were before. This should not be a surprise. Remember that eating disorder behaviors are a response to stress, so every time there is a stressor, you can probably count on the eating disorder showing up again in some way. 

In SPACE for Eating Disorders, parents learn to anticipate kids’ behavioral cycles and respond consistently and calmly no matter what’s coming up. This means parents have learned not just a script or a single response, but an entirely new system for responding to eating disorder behaviors. 


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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How to talk about your child’s eating disorder

How to talk about your child's eating disorder

When your child has an eating disorder you need to talk about it. I know it can be hard to do this. Most of us are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. But it’s important to know that almost anything is better than not talking about it.

When we don’t talk about eating disorders we leave our child to process their fear and pain by themselves. This can feel lonely and shameful and exacerbate eating disorder behaviors.

When we talk about eating disorders we make it safe for our child to tell us how they are feeling. We get to participate in recovery rather than watch from the sidelines. And we learn valuable insights into how we make our child feel and what we need to do to be better parents.

Because there’s no such thing as perfect parenting. But all of us can learn and grow into better parents. And your child’s eating disorder can be a great reason to work on this. 

“Having an eating disorder can be like the elephant in the room: it’s making a mess but nobody will look at it, feel it, or talk about it.”

Let’s talk about eating disorders: Direct approach

Sometimes the easiest way to talk about something is just to open the conversation. This can feel like a triggering, emotional conversation. But it doesn’t have to be so scary if you realize that talking about eating disorders is better than not talking about them.

Here are some simple ways to begin:

I’ve noticed you’re struggling with food, and I’d like to talk about it.

You’re saying a lot of negative things about your body lately, and I want to talk about it.

Important: these are conversation openers. Don’t demand answers or details or get aggressive about this conversation. Just because you want to talk about it right now doesn’t mean they are necessarily ready to reciprocate. Don’t avoid these conversations, but also give your child time and space to open up to you. If your child refuses to talk to you, please get support so that you can find out how to help.

Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve avoided it

Lots of parents avoid talking about eating disorders. I get it. It can be hard to figure out how to do this, and you’re probably afraid you’ll do or say the wrong thing. But it’s essential that you not avoid talking about it. Find the courage to start talking and you’ll find it gets easier. 

Here’s a way to begin: I notice that I’ve been avoiding talking about your eating and body image with you. I’m really sorry about that – it’s not OK to let you struggle with this alone. I’m here to support you, and I’m not going to avoid these conversations anymore.

Let’s talk about eating disorders: When they’ve avoided it

Maybe you’ve tried to talk about it but your child resists conversation. This might look like shutting down, leaving, or yelling at you. These are signs that you need to do some relational repair. And there are lots of ways to do it, but the first is to directly address what is going on and let them know that talking is important. 

Here’s a way to begin: I notice that when I try to talk to you about your eating and body image stuff you avoid talking to me. This is really important, and I’m here to support you, so I’m going to keep trying to talk about it with you.

Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve been upset

This is a tricky subject, so maybe when you try to talk about it you start crying or become visibly anxious. I understand this happens. But when we’re facing a major issue like an eating disorder parents need to dig deep and step into their “parent role.” This means you get to process your feelings elsewhere, but when you’re parenting, you remain calm and confident. Please get some help so that you can start doing this.

Here’s a way to begin: I’ve been thinking about my behavior and I think my fear has led me to get upset when we talk about eating and body issues. I’m really sorry about that because it can make you feel as if I can’t handle this. I want you to know that I can handle this, and I’m not going to put my fear on you anymore.

Let’s talk about eating disorders: When you’ve been critical

Some of us have a critical defense mechanism. This means that when we’re scared we tend to criticize the person we love so much. I understand why this happens, but it’s really important that you change this behavior. You should never criticize your child, especially about their eating and body issues. Please get some help so that you can stop doing this.

Here’s a way to begin: I’ve been thinking about my behavior and I think my fear has led me to be critical when we talk about eating and body issues. I’m really sorry about that, and I’m working on it. I want you to know that you never deserve to be criticized by anyone, especially me, and I’m not going to do it anymore.

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Let’s talk about eating disorders: What not to say/do

We don’t want to avoid the elephant in the room anymore. But that doesn’t mean you should just jump in and start talking without having a game plan. There are some things you should avoid saying and doing, including: 

  • Don’t ask “what do you want me to do?” This is tempting. And of course sometimes it might be appropriate. But in general, keep in mind that our children want us to know how to parent them. When you say this you risk abdicating your responsibility to them.
  • Don’t say “I’m so worried about you.” Of course you are worried. But our children don’t deserve the burden of our fear. Process your fear with a trusted adult, not with your child.
  • Don’t say “I just want you to be you again” Of course you do. But your child is who they are. When you say this it could make them feel that an older version of them was preferred. Recovery rarely means going backwards – it almost always means stepping into a new way of being.
  • Don’t say “I don’t know what to do.” Kids need parents to be in charge of parenting. They need us to be able to handle their stuff. Don’t show your fear and anxiety to your child. Present a confident, calm parent persona to your child.
  • Don’t cry, yell, or avoid conversations. You get to have all your feelings. And I understand you are upset and this is hard. But try to avoid sharing your strong, fearful feelings while talking to your child. Your child needs to know you can handle this, and we don’t want them to feel guilty for having a hard time.
  • Don’t criticize, minimize, or try to fix or change your child’s feelings. Eating disorders are emotional processing disorders. Validate your child’s feelings. Help your child feel their feelings. Don’t try to get them to change how they feel or look on the bright side. 

Get some help

Having a child with an eating disorder is stressful and it is not something you should try to do alone. This is not basic parenting. This is not business as usual.

Your child needs treatment, but you need help, too. When parents don’t change during eating disorder recovery, it’s very hard for their child to stay in recovery. What you do makes a difference. 

When parents grow and learn during recovery, kids feel better.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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Parenting a teenager with an eating disorder

Parenting a teenager with an eating disorder

Parenting a teenager who has an eating disorder is not easy. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that must be treated comprehensively. Since most eating disorders begin during adolescence, parents are on the front lines of treatment and care. But few feel prepared to handle it.

When an eating disorder shows up in your teenager, it’s important to know that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Eating disorders are biopsychosocial disorders, meaning they combine biology, psychology, and social factors. The impact of social factors on eating disorders may be one of the reasons we see so many of them develop during the teenage years. After all, teens are probably under the most intense social pressure out of any age group.

Here are three key things about parenting a teenager with an eating disorder you should know:

1. Adolescence sucks

It is important to understand, and truly connect with, how difficult it is to be an adolescent today. Every teenage cohort believes they have it rough. But this group of teens is correct when they say they are under unique pressure.

The main things that have changed for today’s teenagers include:

  • Social media: every misstep, angry outburst, and embarrassing behavior and experience can be chronicled. Brutal comments and endless opportunities for comparison are an integral part of the platforms.
  • Parental pressure: parents are more engaged in teens today. And this means that teens feel more pressure to perform and succeed than before.
  • Higher mental illness: teens today have higher rates of all mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. This is not just caused by the fact that we’re measuring these things more. Statistics show that it is an actual effect, and our kids are suffering more than we did.
  • COVID-19: obviously, parents did not grow up in a time of COVID-19. And the specific impacts of the pandemic are yet to be measured. But we can clearly anticipate lifelong effects.

Maybe you had pretty good adolescence, but chances are that even if you did, you still struggled at times. Maybe you have forgotten about the really hard year in the midst of good ones. Or maybe the last two years of high school were great. But you’ve forgotten the terror of the middle school years. Chances are good that if you look closely, you will uncover your own challenges during adolescence.

A rough time in life

During adolescence, our emotions are all over the place. We are also biologically driven to separate from the people who we love and trust most – our own parents. This leads to seemingly ridiculous power struggles. these struggles are an integral part of developing into independent adults. And they’re hard.

Then you add on the elements of today’s society. There’s increased pressure for school performance, extracurricular activities, getting into the right college, looking good, and feeling happy. And, of course, social media makes it all harder. Sure, some of it is fun, and our kids enjoy themselves some of the time. But never forget that the years between 10-20 are rife with stress and anxiety. And both stress and anxiety are heavy contributors to eating disorders.

Tip: Help your teenager feel safe and secure at home. This will reduce their stress and anxiety, which contributes to eating disorders. Keep in mind that when your teenager says “life sucks,” it may be true. It doesn’t mean you have failed as a parent, it just means the world is tough on teenagers. Yours likely needs your love and support.

2. Eating disorder behavior is prescribed as “good”

Eating disorders are scary, but most of us can recognize the behaviors of an eating disorder. In fact, they are prescribed and recommended in our culture. They include:

  • Obsession with weight and shape: there are very few people in our society who are not a bit worried about or concerned about their weight and shape. Weight control is promoted in healthcare, schools, the media, and almost everywhere. This obsession drives a +$70B industry.
  • Restriction: if you’ve ever been on a diet, then you have restricted your food. Diets prescribe eating disorder behavior.
  • Binge eating: when the body is starved of food, such as when restricting, it will demand fat- and sugar-filled calories. Thus, restriction is the precursor to binge eating. And almost everyone who has been on a diet can relate to the insatiable drive to eat high-calorie food.
  • Purging: when the body becomes over-full, or when you are worried that you have eaten “too much,” you might feel as if you need to purge the food from your body. Not everyone turns to vomiting, using laxatives, and other purge behaviors. But most people who have tried to control their weight can relate to the urge to do it.
  • Over-exercise: excessive exercise is seen in our society as healthy, but it is not. In fact, it can be a form of purging. Many people feel they must exercise when sick, feeling run-down, or injured. Rather than a sign of health, this means exercise has become compulsive.

Sound familiar?

Most of these eating disorder behaviors probably sound familiar to you. In fact, you may use some of them yourself. Teenagers are in the throes of developing their identity and have very little impulse control. Thus, they are susceptible to eating disorders. And it’s no surprise – our society literally prescribes eating disorder behaviors every day.

The normalization of eating disorder behaviors also means that recovery can be hard to measure. As long as eating disorder behaviors are prescribed, parents struggle to define “health” for their kids.

Tip: Prohibit eating disorder behaviors in your home. That means nobody should be restricting, weighing themselves, or pursuing a particular weight and shape. This may be a big shift for you. Check out our article on the non-diet approach to health.

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3. Mental healthcare is expensive and hard to get

When you have a child with an eating disorder, you seek out the best path to care. And at that point, you realize that there are many paths, and it all seems to be up to you. The challenge with a mental health crisis is that mental healthcare is patchy, expensive, and hard to navigate. Finding care can be surprisingly difficult.

Going through your insurance provider may be very challenging. Your provider may limit eating disorder treatment only to extreme “medical” cases. And even then, care may only extend through a minimum of weight restoration, which falls far short of full eating disorder recovery.

Insurance companies are technically required to cover mental health. But it’s common for claims to be denied or held up. It’s also common for the best therapists to require direct payment. This is because they frequently don’t get paid by the insurance company. Insurance companies may only pay for medication, and not therapy. Even good coverage may limit your treatment options.

It’s a challenge to get care

There is a good chance that you will need to pay out of pocket to provide your child with comprehensive eating disorder care. Treatment requires a team of an experienced dietitian and therapist over a period of months to years. This can get very expensive, very quickly. In many cases, even if you choose to pay out of pocket for your child’s care, the best therapists may not have openings or may not be physically nearby your location. This adds to the burden of care, further complicating recovery.

Tip: I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to our lack of good mental healthcare. Have compassion for yourself as you navigate the system. And get as much support as you can. Also, know that your behavior matters. You can help your child recover. Parenting a teenager who has an eating disorder is hard. But the fact that eating disorders are partly social means that parents actually have a tremendous opportunity to impact recovery.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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Family meals can help prevent eating disorders

Family meals can help prevent eating disorders

There is evidence that family meals can help prevent eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. This is important because there are a lot of forces increasing the risk of eating disorders right now. And if there’s something parents can do to reduce the risk, it’s a huge opportunity.

The science of eating together

A study examined the association between family meal patterns and disordered eating, which is defined as unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, and chronic dieting, in adolescent girls and boys.

The study found that more frequent family meals, placing a high priority on family meals, and a positive atmosphere at family meals are positively correlated with fewer cases of disordered eating.

For example, 18.1% of girls who reported 1-2 family meals per week engaged in extreme weight control behaviors compared with 8.8% of girls who reported 3-4 family meals per week. Researchers concluded that family meals have the potential to play an important role in the prevention of unhealthy eating behaviors among youth.

This means that when we double the number of family meals per week, we cut the risk of disordered eating in half. Since eating disorders are a quick and easy step from disordered eating, family meals can really help.

When is it an eating disorder and when is it healthy?

Eating disorders are complex and involve multiple factors. And while eating disorders are much more than a diet, almost all eating disorders begin with a diet. That’s why families that prevent diet behavior (also called “disordered eating”) are more likely to prevent eating disorders.

Dieting can be a little tricky to spot today, since most people use code words like “getting healthy” in place of “diet.” But let’s just say that anytime you see behaviors like reduced food consumption, increased exercise, and behaviors like weighing, tracking, and measuring, it’s most likely what we would call “diet” behavior, AKA disordered eating.

If you’re confused, that makes sense. We’ve been told that health is measured by what we eat and how much we weigh. We’ve been taught that someone who eats quinoa and kale, works out, and weighs less is healthier than someone who eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, walks to work, and weighs more.

But this is where it gets tricky.

That person who is eating “pure” foods and weighs less may have a life-threatening eating disorder and struggle with depression and anxiety. They may plan every meal and stop eating out with friends and family because they need to control their plates. They may feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.

The person who eats everyday food and weighs more may enjoy their daily walk to work and get plenty of rest and sleep. They may meet up with friends and family to play a spontaneous game of Frisbee and eat a delicious meal. They may feel fulfilled and satisfied.

Which person is healthier?

Just because we’ve been taught that weight is the best indicator of health doesn’t mean it’s true. When we measure health by what’s on a person’s plate or what shows on the scale, we miss the whole point of health. Health is not a number – it is nothing we can measure. Health is the ability to enjoy life and feel positive.

A healthy plan

The good news is that it’s never too late for parents to create a diet-free home. And the work can begin with family meals. Family meals can prevent eating disorders by cutting off disordered eating before it begins. You can relax about exactly what’s on the plate, how much everyone eats, and what people weigh. Instead you can rest assured that the healthiest thing you can do for your family is to feed them together in a pleasant environment. Here’s how to get started:

1. Make family meals a priority

The study found that the most consistent factor protecting our kids from disordered eating was families that made eating together a priority. Of course, we understand this can be challenging. But at least you don’t have to add this to worrying about whether the meal itself is “healthy.” All you have to do is place priority on sitting down as a family to eat together.

Prioritizing family meals doesn’t have to mean dinnertime. If dinner won’t work, can you all wake up a little earlier and have family breakfasts? Remember – the food doesn’t matter as much as the action of sitting down together to eat. So load up on easy-to-make foods and focus on the gathering rather than the food.

When you prioritize eating together as a family, you are prioritizing the family unit. You are demonstrating the value of human connection as it relates to food. Don’t let our modern lifestyles fool you: humans have always shared food together as a signal of peace, belonging and connection. Our kids’ health depends on these things much more than the latest superfood.

2. Eat together frequently

The word “frequently” will vary from family to family, but we should all be able to commit to a minimum of two meals together every week. A more ideal goal is a minimum of four meals eaten together as a family.

You may have to adjust schedules. You may have to mix the times of meals. Sometimes, a “meal” may be an afternoon or late-night snack. The idea is to commit to sitting together with food as often as possible for your family.

This will get easier over time. Once you make the commitment and get over the initial panic over how you can possibly achieve the goal of four meals per week, you may find it surprisingly easy to make it happen. If necessary, start a calendar to track your meals together and give yourselves stickers so you can all see how you are doing in meeting your healthy goals of eating food together.

If you can’t get the whole family together, don’t give up! Gather as many members as possible whenever possible. Even if just two people are in the house, they should eat together, not separately.

3. Get it on the table

It’s not easy to think up meals for everyone. Here’s the easiest method I’ve heard of to plan meals. First, let’s define a meal. Dietitians define a meal as about 50% starch, 25% protein, 25% vegetable/fruit, plus fat. I know the low-carb thing has been going on for a long time, but unless a doctor has specifically put you on that diet for a reason other than weight loss, it’s not recommended by anyone who understands disordered eating and eating disorders.

This balance of starch, protein, vegetable/fruit and fat is essential to a healthy body and mind. And once you get in the rhythm of planning meals this way, things get easier. Here are some examples:

  • Buttered pasta, tomato sauce with meat or tempeh, salad
  • Baked potato with cheese, turkey chili, cole slaw
  • Rice, fish, and stir-fry vegetables with sesame oil sauce on top
  • Tortillas, beans, ground meat, cheese, and pico de gallo
  • Cheeseburgers, broccoli
  • Pizza, chicken breast, sliced cucumber

Those are dinner ideas, but this meal balance applies to all meals of the day. So breakfast might be waffles, full-fat yogurt, bacon, and fruit. Lunch can be a turkey sandwich with mayo and cheese, and a tangerine.

Once you get in the swing of planning family meals, you can mix and match your elements. But every meal should have all four elements. You’ll find that full meals will reduce hunger throughout the day. You should all still have 2-3 snacks to keep you going. But the most likely outcome of eating full meals like this is there will be a reduction in binge eating. Binge eating is almost always a natural response to food restriction and hunger, so this meal program will remove that problem.

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4. Create a positive atmosphere at family meals

We all have moods. We all have bad days. And sometimes in families, we will identify one person as a trouble-maker and focus our energy on correcting that person during mealtimes. Control the urge!

If you had a bad day – if you are in a bad mood – if one of your kids is acting up – suspend all of that to focus on making the family meal a positive experience. The whole purpose of the meal is to bring you together, so resist your urges to correct and control during mealtimes.

It may take time, but encourage everyone to think consciously about approaching family meals from a positive mindset. In fact, make this an explicit goal of the family meal. Empower every member of the family to kindly but assertively speak up if anyone (including a parent) starts bringing negativity to the meal.

Think of yourself as the captain of the ship during mealtimes, and feel free to steer if necessary to make sure that each person is included in the conversation. If the ship captain idea doesn’t float your boat, then just imagine that you are hosting a dinner party with friends. You want to help everyone feel at ease and comfortable at your dinner party, otherwise it’s a flop.

5. Create a more structured family meal environment

If you are succeeding at the points above, then you may consider how you can make your family meal environment more structured. Structured meals have been correlated with healthier behavior, so it’s worth considering how you can improve in this area.

First of all, turn off all TVs and electronic devices. Keep phones, tablets, and other distractions off the table – literally. In fact, keep them at least 10 ft away from the table and switch them to airplane mode if they continue to be a distraction.

Second, gather around a single dining surface. It could be a dining table, a kitchen island, a coffee table, or a cardboard box. The goal is to have everyone’s plates and glasses sharing the same surface at the same time. This builds the communal concept of family meals. It makes a difference in how each person perceives the value of your shared meal.

That’s the minimum structure required. Some families may enjoy bringing out the fine table linens, dishes, etc. and (finally) use them. They light candles, set the dining room table, and dim the lights a little bit. Then they may bring takeout food to the table and dig in.

Remember, it’s not what you eat, but how you eat (communally) that matters. The idea is that you are making a statement: we are a family, and we are sharing food now. If you are eating takeout, try to avoid each person eating out of their own takeout container, and instead share the dishes. If you have cooked something, it’s OK if some people prefer raw vs. cooked veggies, but in general, you want to all be eating roughly the same meal.

And please, if you are dieting in any way. This means if you are restricting foods and weighing yourself with a weight goal in mind. Please stop. It’s very hard to raise kids who are free from disordered eating when parents are modeling disordered eating. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is important.

With more attention directed towards increasing family meal frequency and less attention spent on worrying about kids’ food choices and body weight, parents can help their children become healthy adults. Family meals won’t solve every problem, but they can go a long way towards reducing and preventing eating disorders.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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3 things to stop doing when your child has an eating disorder

3 things to stop doing when your child has an eating disorder

When your child has an eating disorder, it’s time to critically evaluate what you do and what you need to stop doing. No parent is ever responsible for a child’s eating disorder. However, the disorder found life in the family ecosystem. Thus there is good reason to consider the environmental conditions that may have contributed to its development.

Parents are never to blame. But parents who carefully evaluate their child’s ecosystem can be of tremendous help during recovery.

In this article I will review the three “sacred cows” that most of us live with in our culture. These sacred cows are natural and normal. However, they are also the things we should stop doing when a child has an eating disorder.

A sacred cow is an idea, custom or institution believed to be above criticism. Sacred cows are firmly believed to be absolutely and factually correct, but they do not stand up to critical evaluation. Overcoming sacred cows requires practice. Even when we know intellectually they are false or even harmful, our unconscious beliefs may still exist.

Here are three sacred cows that families need to stop perpetuating when a child has an eating disorder:

Sacred Cow 1: Thin is better

We live in a culture that believes 500% that being thin is good, and fat is bad. Thin people are believed to be in better physical health, of higher intelligence, and, of course, more attractive. This sacred cow goes so deep that it can feel overwhelming to topple it. But we must in order to heal from our eating disorders. The facts are that:

Equal Health:

People who live in thinner bodies are not actually healthier just because they have less adipose tissue.

Many people who live in larger bodies are physically healthier and live longer than people who are living in thinner bodies. Neither body type is better than the other from a health standpoint.

In fact the greatest risk to someone in a larger body is not their adipose tissue but weight stigma. If this statement is making you feel deeply confused, it’s because it’s a sacred cow. Read more: Facts about weight

Equal Intelligence:

People who live in larger bodies are not less intelligent, but they are believed to be less intelligent based on the fact that everyone “knows” that all it takes to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you put out.

This is deeply believed yet completely false. Weight loss and maintaining a low body weight is not simply a matter of intelligence and willpower.

Body weight is programmed genetically and environmentally. We have very little control over it.

Not everyone is capable of losing weight and maintaining a thin body. And people who don’t lose weight are not less intelligent than those who live in smaller bodies. Read more: Facts about dieting

Equally Attractive:

People who live in larger bodies are not less attractive than those who live in thinner bodies.

How do we know this? Because there is no single standard for human beauty.

Beauty standards are societally-driven based on the preferences popularized by those in power. In our society, the beauty, fashion and health industries push the thin ideal everywhere we go.

As a result, we have internalized the belief that being thin is more beautiful. But, just like all sacred cows, you can dismantle this one.

Spend some time learning about fatphobia and feminism. We can learn to see all bodies as uniquely beautiful, regardless of their size. We just need to drop the social construct that thin = beautiful.

Sacred Cow 2: A child’s body weight is the parent’s responsibility

Many parents believe that their child’s body is a reflection of their parenting.

This damaging belief begins at the first visit with the pediatrician. When our children are just hours old, the doctor mentions the child’s height to weight ratio. This begins a lifetime study of a body’s weight.

When a child “fails to thrive,”  parents feel guilty. When a child gains weight “too rapidly,” parents feel guilty.

This system innately links our child’s body weight to our abilities as parents. Every single pediatrician visit begins with a height/weight analysis and questions about the child’s eating patterns.

Even parents who have children who fall directly on the “average” line of weight receive comments about maintaining weight. The assumption is that weight is within our control.

But this belief that parents should monitor their child’s weight and keep it low on the scale is a sacred cow.

Bodies are naturally diverse, and the more parents mess with their kid’s weight, in the form of diets, criticism, and teasing, the more likely their kids are to have problems with weight as adults.

That’s right. Parents who obsess over kids’ weight are more likely to have larger-bodied kids. This is because typically the only influence we have on our kids’ weight is negative.

That does not mean parents don’t influence healthy behaviors.

A child’s body weight is not the parent’s responsibility. It is up to a complex interaction of genetics and environment. However, parents can take responsibility for creating a healthy environment. By not focusing on weight you are not ignoring health; you are simply recognizing that focusing on weight is usually not healthy.

Instead, parents can focus on modifiable behaviors such as sleep, play, stress management, and intuitive eating.

Parents are responsible for offering their kids a healthy selection of foods. We are responsible for helping our children notice how food makes their bodies feel. We are responsible for never labeling foods “good” or “bad,” which can lead kids to binge eat when given access to “bad” foods.

When children are fed in this way they become natural, intuitive eaters who balance out their diets for optimal nutrition based on their individual bodies. For more about feeding kids, please visit the Ellen Satter Institute.

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Sacred Cow 3: Good parenting is natural

The sacred cow that good parenting is natural, or that love is all you need to raise a child well, needs to be thoroughly toppled.

Good parenting is often not natural.

Most of the reason for this is that none of us is born with a knowledge of psychology, brain development, and the other critical skills that are necessary to parent well.

Most of us were also parented imperfectly. Therefore we should carefully evaluate what we think is “right” before automatically assuming it is healthy.

Great parents spend time thinking critically about parenting. They make constant adjustments based on how their kids react to their parenting.

They read articles, pursue training, and get coaching to help them dismantle their assumptions. They learn to exchange sacred cows for compassionate parenting approaches.

It doesn’t matter how much you love your child – love is not enough.

All of us make mistakes, and many times we hurt the people we love simply because we don’t realize that while having love for our children is natural and automatic, giving love appropriately is a conscious, intentional action.

Giving love takes practice and patience, and we must adjust our love-giving for each child and each circumstance. If this sounds exhausting, it can be sometimes, but it is also absolutely what our kids need from us. Read more: Give More Love

Check your sacred cows

If your child has an eating disorder, then this is the perfect time to check your sacred cows about parenting and learn some new skills.

There are things we can stop doing that will help our children who have an eating disorder.

It’s never too late to become a better parent. And our children have tremendous capacity to accept a parent who learns new parenting skills.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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Simple validations for kids who have eating disorders

Simple validations for kids who have eating disorders (1)

When parents learn how to validate their kids’ feelings, kids become less defiant and more pleasant to be around. And for kids who have an eating disorder, validation can support the recovery process.

Validating a child’s feelings is incredibly simple, but it’s not natural for many of us. Most parents were raised in emotionally-distant households. Few of us experienced being validated as children, which is why we’re not likely to do it naturally for our own kids.

Luckily, it’s easy to learn how to validate our kids’ feelings, and the benefits are often spectacular.

Why validation is a powerful parenting strategy

When parents validate kids’ feelings, they create conditions that build:

  • Emotional Regulation: Children who believe their feelings are valid and important are able to regulate their emotions more easily. This means they aren’t subject to constant mood shifts and emotional outbursts. Additionally, when they do experience these, they can recover faster.
  • Emotional Resilience: Parents who validate their kids raise children who feel accepted and worthy of love. This makes them emotionally resilient and less vulnerable to addiction and mental disorders.
  • Stronger Relationships: Parents who validate their kids build a stronger relationship with them. Validation makes your kids feel more connected to you, and you also feel more connected to them.
  • Easier Kids: Kids who feel emotionally validated by their parents are easier to parent. They feel safe and secure in the relationship. Therefore they are more likely to trust that parents have their best interests at heart.

How to validate your kids’ feelings

Any parent can learn how to validate their kids’ feelings. It just takes some patience and practice. Here’s what to do:

  • Notice: You can’t validate a feeling unless you recognize that your child is having a feeling. Often feelings make us uncomfortable, so we try to dismiss or ignore them. Instead, notice that a feeling is happening.
  • Regulate Yourself: It’s likely that you have feelings about your child’s feelings. So take a moment to calm yourself down. It’s very hard to validate your child if you’re upset. Try the following steps:
    • Name: It helps to give a name to the feeling you think your child is having. Start with the big 3: anger, fear, and sadness. Then go beyond these feelings with additional words like disgust, shame, and jealousy. Giving a name to the feelings can help contain them so they don’t feel quite so overwhelming.
    • Source: Try to identify the source of the feelings. It may be obvious – maybe you said they can’t attend a party. But try to think through additional sources. For example, maybe they told their friends they were going to the party. Now they feel embarrassed that they can’t go.
    • Center: Now that you know the name of the feeling and the likely sources of the feeling, take a deep breath and center yourself. Only then should you provide validation.
  • Validate: Provide a statement that shows you understand and accept the feelings. Here are some examples:
    • It makes sense that you feel that way.
    • I can understand why you feel that way.
    • I’m here for you.
    • I bet you’re frustrated!
    • I hear you.
    • I’m sorry that you’re frustrated with me.
    • I imagine this is really hard for you.
    • Thank you for telling me how you feel.
    • Your emotions make sense.

Getting started

You may feel very strange making validating statements at first. And your child may be surprised when you do it for the first time. But stick with it. Over time, it will feel natural and normal, but it takes practice! Just try to find a validating statement that feels authentic in the moment. Remember that you’re not judging the feeling as good or bad; you’re just accepting the fact that the feeling exists.

3 validations for kids who have eating disorders

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then learning to validate your kids’ feelings is even more valuable. Here are three validations that are helpful for kids who have eating disorders.

1. You are loved

All of us long to be loved and to feel worthy of love just for the simple fact that we exist in the world. And the most foundational love of all comes from our parents. Our parents should love us for the simple reason that we are their children.

Many of us grew up in families that assumed love was implied, but it was rarely explicitly spoken. But children long to hear words about how loved and special they are. There is no risk of over-loving our kids. We don’t need to hold off on telling them we love them for any reason. 

Here are some validating phrases to say to children to express your love:

  • I love you just as you are.
  • You are worthy of my time and interest, and I’m happy to support you.
  • I am here for you. 
  • I know who you are and I accept you as you are.
  • Your emotions are not too much for me; they make sense to me.
  • I am here, you’re safe, I won’t go away no matter how big your feelings get.
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2. You don’t have to be perfect

Some parents believe that their children should look a certain way or get certain grades or play a certain sport. To reinforce achievement goals, these parents may withdraw affection or criticize their children when they do not perform well. These parents are not monsters – they are operating under the assumption that we must push and drive our children to succeed. 

However, children cannot separate their performance from who they are as people. As a result, children who believe they must perform a certain way to gain their parents’ love tend to become perfectionists, which sets them up for eating disorders and can ironically hold them back from achieving. The more a child fears letting a parent down, the fewer risks that child will take. This negatively impacts their ability to achieve in life.

Here are some validating phrases to say to children to express your acceptance:

  • Mistakes are just a sign that you’re trying. They are not a sign that you can’t do it!
  • Screwing up is OK and doesn’t make you less lovable.
  • It’s OK not to be perfect, it doesn’t affect how I feel about you.
  • I will never be ashamed of you for trying something difficult.
  • I’m proud of you for taking that risk.
  • You acted out because you were in so much pain, not because you’re a bad person.
  • I love you no matter what … it isn’t contingent on making good grades or doing things “right.”

3. Your body is fine

Some parents believe that “good parents” should control and manage their children’s food and bodies. Our society, driven by diet culture, has sent many messages to parents suggesting that they are “bad” parents if they don’t worry about and try to influence their child’s weight. Parents worry they will be criticized if a child gains weight or lives on the higher end of the weight scale.

Children cannot separate their body from who they believe they are as a person. Parents who focus on their child’s appearance and criticize or feel badly about their children’s bodies pass along a deep sense of unease and discomfort that is fertile ground for eating disorders. Even if the parent never says anything out loud, children can sense parental disapproval and will feel bad about their bodies and themselves.

Here are some validating phrases to say to children to express that you accept their body as it is:

  • I trust your body to grow exactly as it needs to grow.
  • Your body is good the way it is.
  • I love you exactly as you are.
  • You are worthy of love regardless of the shape of your body.
  • Your weight doesn’t determine the love you receive. 
  • You can pursue health at any size.
  • What you eat does not determine your worth.
  • You don’t need to change your body to be loved.
  • Your body has to gain weight to grow, especially during puberty. It is not a sign that something is wrong.

Validation is good parenting

Validating our kids is soothing to their souls, and can help them grow strong and healthy – emotionally and physically. It may feel awkward, but remember to keep trying. Validating your kids is well worth the effort.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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3 tips for parents who have a child with an eating disorder

3 tips for parents who have a child with an eating disorder

These tips for parents who have a child with an eating disorder are about what you do, not about what your child does. This is because parents can change their own behavior, but we have very little control over our child’s behavior.

This becomes very apparent with an eating disorder diagnosis. Because no matter how much parents want a child to recover, they cannot make it happen with force. Parents who attend to what they do have power over and leave the things they don’t can make the greatest difference in recovery.

1. See your child for who they are

A child who has an eating disorder often surprises their parents. Most people who have eating disorders appear to be “good kids.” Few parents recognize the early signs of an eating disorders because they see the facade the child presents at home and to the world. To help a child recover, parents need to look deeper than surface behaviors and see the child for who they are.

For example, Marianne loves her daughter Tamara. But when Tamara was growing up, Marianne struggled to juggle parenting three kids with her career. Tamara, the middle child, believed that she was a burden.

To compensate, Tamara worked hard to be a good girl and make life easier for Marianne. She cooked dinner for the family, kept her room spotless, and always behaved at school. These were ways in which Tamara sought the love she needed from her mother. And while Marianne thought Tamara was amazing and wonderful, she didn’t realize that Tamara’s goodness was a performance in pursuit of love.

It was natural for Marianne to think that Tamara was a happy, good kid. And recognizing that Tamara had complicated feelings about Marianne’s career was really hard. Marianne realized that Tamara wasn’t just naturally “good;” she was performing a role in an attempt to gain love and affection.

Parents must look beyond kids’ performative roles and see the child within. Marianne now has the chance to show Tamara that she is not a burden, but a perfectly worthy child even when she doesn’t perform goodness.

The idea behind these tips is to show how parents can help with eating disorder recovery. And one of the biggest ways parents can help is by working on their relationship with their child. Parents can also help the child reimagine the roles they play within the family and in the world.

2. Understand what eating disorders are (and what they’re not)

Eating disorders come with behavioral symptoms. It’s all too easy for parents to think that the behaviors are the eating disorder. But in fact the behaviors are symptoms. And treating the symptoms will not necessarily lead to recovery from an eating disorder.

For example, when Tamara started bingeing and purging, she hid it from her parents. But as it got worse, Marianne caught on and got Tamara into treatment for her eating disorder. Marianne was understandably most interested in stopping the behaviors immediately. She didn’t want her little girl to binge eat and purge several times per day.

As a result, Marianne was frustrated when Tamara’s care providers took things slowly. They talked about family dynamics and mental health hygiene. She felt like it was a waste of her time to learn how to cope with Tamara’s anxiety when she really just needed to her to stop bingeing and purging.

But with time and education Marianne came to realize that rushing recovery wasn’t going to lead to long-term health. She slowed down and worked on learning skills that could improve the household environment. She learned how to talk about emotions, and the whole family got better at sharing their feelings.

As Tamara gradually recovered, Marianne could see that all the things she thought were a waste of time were actually essential to healing. As a mental disorder, eating disorders need to be treated on multiple levels. It’s not enough to be abstinent from the behaviors of an eating disorder. True healing comes when the person learns to cope with their emotions without their eating disorder.

These tips for parents acknowledge that while an eating disorder has physical symptoms, they are mental disorders. When parents attend to the mental and emotional side of the eating disorder, they’re often successful at reducing the need for the eating disorder.

3. Create a self-care plan

Parents are under tremendous pressure every day. We exist in a society that provides very little support to us in the best of times. In the worst of times, such as when we have a child who has an eating disorder, many of us can’t help but feel completely isolated and overwhelmed.

When Tamara was diagnosed with an eating disorder, Marianne was prepared to quit her job and devote all her time to Tamara’s recovery. But she loved her job. And while there is a lot that parents can do to help kids recover, it’s also important to maintain their own sense of identity and purpose throughout treatment.

Instead of quitting, Marianne put together a self-care plan to help her support Tamara’s recovery. She looked at all aspects of her own health, including sleep, fitness, eating, joy, and support. Marianne made sure she got enough sleep each night and was eating and moving her body in ways that felt good. She gave up dieting and intense exercise classes and instead adopted Intuitive Eating and enjoyable outdoor walks with her friends. Marianne also got a mentor to support her through Tamara’s recovery.

This may sound like a pipe dream, but mothers have a long history of not taking care of ourselves. This tendency, rather than helping our kids, actually leaves us depleted and less able to help. Think of the airplane warning: adults should always put on their own oxygen masks before they help a child. This is because we can’t help others if we’re gasping for breath.

By bolstering her own self-care, Marianne became a powerful member of Tamara’s recovery team. Her steady, conscious support went a long way towards helping Tamara recover.

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Final thoughts

Remember that while of course you want your child to recover as quickly as possible, your main goal should actually be to understand and support your child on their unique path to recovery. Parents who do this can make a tremendous positive impact on their child’s recovery. You show up and do what you can, but you also accept what you can’t do.

This approach may feel like the easy way out, but it’s definitely not. It’s actually a lot harder for parents to learn the boundaries around what they can and cannot do for their kids than it is to dive in and try to fix everything for them. Think of when your child was struggling to build something using blocks. Wasn’t it harder to watch them struggle than to just dive in and build the castle for them? Monitoring and managing our own anxiety about what our kids go through is a lot of work, so don’t underestimate the effort required.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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How to stay married when your child has an eating disorder

How to stay married when your child has an eating disorder

Couples can take active steps to stay married when their child has an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a major stressor in a marriage, and can lead to distance and even divorce.

Eating disorders, like other mental health diagnoses, can turn a family upside down. And even parents who felt their marriage was relatively stable may now feel at odds with each other. Deciding about treatment, acceptable behavior, and the day-to-day management of a child in crisis is exhausting. That’s why it’s so important to make a commitment to your marriage right from the start.

The most common reasons that married couples risk divorce when a child has an eating disorder are:

  1. Disagreements about treatment
  2. Not prioritizing your marriage
  3. Trying to be strong
  4. One person does more than the other
  5. Blaming self and/or spouse for the problem
  6. Looking elsewhere for comfort

All of these risks can be managed – it is very possible to stay married and even to deepen your relationship when your child has an eating disorder. We’ve detailed some ideas below.

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1. Disagreements about treatment

Most parents know very little about eating disorders. This, combined with a lack of evidence-based treatment paths, leaves parents wondering exactly how to manage the eating disorder and get their child healthy again.

Typically, one partner will take the eating disorder more seriously than the other one. This partner may be the person who is sounding the alarm, taking the child to the doctor, and pleading with the child to eat normally again. The other partner may dismiss the eating disorder or think they can tell the child to eat more and everything will be fine.

Many parents find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding whether to get treatment for their child’s eating disorder. One thing we know is that eating disorders rarely go away by themselves. Also, eating disorders are best dealt with quickly rather than left to fester and grow. Early, thorough treatment is best. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for both people in the marriage to agree on exactly what makes up thorough treatment.

If you and your partner are disagreeing about whether to treat your child or how to treat your child, schedule a consultation with an eating disorder professional. They can help you discuss your shared goals and define where you disagree. They can also provide insight into treatment options and help you find common ground. This will help you gain clarity about the disorder your child faces and get you talking about common goals. By facing the challenge together, you can actually strengthen your married bond during eating disorder recovery.

2. Not prioritizing your marriage

Most parents are already juggling plenty of tasks. When a child develops an eating disorder, it can seem impossible to find time to get everything done. Now, on top of all your regular responsibilities, you also have to get them back and forth for doctor’s and therapist appointments while also creating a home environment that supports recovery.

If you are both working and have other children, getting everything done is a massive undertaking. As soon as possible, sit down and have a “state of our marriage” discussion. Talk to each other about your priorities and discuss how you can keep your marriage on the list.

You may need to cut down on some of your couple activities to accommodate your child’s eating disorder treatment. But don’t ignore your marriage or set it aside during this time. It’s OK to take date nights. You may even consider a brief vacation or getaway together. Check with your child’s treatment team, but usually they will support couples who invest in each other. The couples that stay married through an eating disorder make their marriage a priority.

3. Trying to be strong

It’s normal for parents facing an eating disorder to feel scared and even angry. Lots of people think that eating disorders are a symptom of bad parenting. The stigma of an eating disorder can make parents feel isolated and ashamed. Eating disorders are also difficult and expensive to treat. Eating disorders are stressful for parents and the entire family. This is not the time to clam up and turn away from each other. Instead, have open, vulnerable conversations about how the eating disorder is affecting each of you.

Be intentional about talking to each other about what you’re struggling with. Sometimes you need to complain about a situation brought about by a child’s illness. Because not talking about it can create caverns of isolation that keep you each trapped in your own pain and suffering.

It’s important to realize that while your child has the diagnosis, everyone in the family will feel the impact of the eating disorder. You deserve help and support during this time.

This is not the time to be strong, but a time to open up to each other and trusted friends, family members, and professionals who can share your burden. Trying to be strong or do this alone will add to the strain on your marriage and make it vulnerable.

4. One person does more than the other

Most couples have to balance the requirements of family life with their careers, friendships, and hobbies. In most couples, women take on more of the family labor than men. This includes housework, cooking, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, and more.

If you have a child with an eating disorder, the family labor requirements can double or triple. If you already have an imbalance of family labor in your marriage, then the eating disorder diagnosis could completely overwhelm one partner (often the mother). Taking children to treatment sessions, monitoring food, exercise, and eating habits, and other day-to-day management activities are intense.

It’s important to talk to your partner about the labor involved in running the household and also managing a sick child. It makes sense that each of you will need to increase family labor. This could mean a decrease in your time for work, friendships, and hobbies. Make sure you’re talking to each other about how the eating disorder is being managed amongst other household tasks, or one partner could end up feeling resentful and burned out.

The eating disorder diagnosis will exacerbate any existing inequality in the marriage, so it’s best to stay on top of this conversation throughout treatment.

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5. Blaming self and/or spouse for the problem

It is normal to want to place blame when something goes wrong. And when a child is sick, we naturally want to find someone on which to place the blame. Eating disorders are complex, biopsychosocial disorders. This means they arise from a combination of biological, psychological, and social conditions. No single person, event, or condition causes an eating disorder. No parent is ever responsible for an eating disorder.

But that doesn’t stop couples from blaming either themselves or each other. When we blame ourselves, we believe that our actions or beliefs caused the eating disorder. And while parents often change their beliefs and behavior when there is an eating diagnosis, that doesn’t mean it’s their fault.

Likewise, it’s unhelpful to blame a partner for a child’s eating disorder. Parents who are seeking to blame others for the eating disorder have less energy to invest in their child’s recovery from an eating disorder.

The best thing is to work together to address any beliefs and behaviors that may contribute to the eating disorder. Take action to provide a safe and healthy environment for your child’s recovery rather than blaming anyone for its existence.

6. Looking elsewhere for comfort

Sometimes the pressure of a child’s eating disorder feels like it’s too much for the couple to handle. One or both partners may turn to people and things outside of the marriage for comfort. For example, some partners will increase behaviors like drinking, shopping, or gambling. These behaviors are an attempt to avoid the pain and struggle of having a child with an eating disorder. But they will drive a wedge between the person and their family, and put the marriage at risk.

Other times, partners will seek other people for comfort. Infidelity can become much more attractive when a partner feels ignored, angry, or scared at home. A child’s eating disorder can make an affair seem like the only pleasure available in life. But, of course, having an affair will only make life harder for everyone in the family.

If you notice that the gap between you and your partner is growing, take steps now to repair and come together. The more you can face the eating disorder as a team, the greater your chances of success. And the good news is that parents who maintain and deepen their relationships can help their child recover from an eating disorder. This is because a healthy family makes recovery easier and safer for the child.

Your marriage can survive this

The good news is that marriages can survive a child’s eating disorder. In fact, some people find that having a child go through eating disorder recovery strengthens their families and marriages. The key is to recognize the potential pitfalls and working to turn towards each other rather than away. When a couple works together to support a child in eating disorder recovery, they can survive.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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Unlock the best way to parent a difficult child

What is the best way to parent a difficult child

Many parents wonder what is the best way to parent a difficult child. There are two common paths in our culture. One way is to bring down the hammer and increase control in the household. A second approach is to throw up your hands and give up on trying to change things. Of course, you may still complain about your child’s behavior, but you have no hope of being effective.

Common ways to parent a difficult child

Let’s start by exploring these two very different types of parenting methods we see most often in the media and among friends, family, and in our own households.

1. Controlling parents assert that they are always right. They attempt to control the child’s behavior and thoughts in order to achieve success. When children make mistakes, they are reprimanded and punished. The challenge is that children in these households typically rebel or lose themselves. They tend to lack self-control and intrinsic motivation.

2. Permissive parents feel helpless and unable to positively impact their kids. They tend to feel victimized by the child’s behavior. They may not have the time or resources to actively parent their kids. Or they may have been parented by controlling parents when they were children. They are now over-correcting in an attempt to avoid putting their own children through the same thing.

3. Swing parents go between the two extremes of controlling and permissiveness. They buckle down and put punishments and rules in place, only to give up when their child fights back, sneaks out, or does anything else to push against the controlling measures. Swinging between two polarities can leave kids feeling insecure and more likely to act up. This can create an exhausting cycle for both parents and kids.

A more effective way to parent a difficult child

But there is another, more effective method of parenting that is far more likely to help a difficult child and make being a parent easier. Assertive parents build their parental relationships on mutual respect and trust. With clear boundaries between who they are and who their kids are, they recognize their kids’ unique personalities and strengths.

They don’t feel threatened when their child makes mistakes or doesn’t want to do something the parent cares about. They seek ways to enhance the child’s natural strengths and interests and create situations in which the child can learn to face developmentally-appropriately hardship. This approach builds safety and grit.

When children make mistakes, they are spoken to with kindness and understanding. But assertive parents also have boundaries and rules. They collaborate with their kids to set goals and make changes. They have confidence that the child is doing the best they can.

Difficult children are harder to parent

There is no single definition of what makes a child “difficult,” but one thing is clear, and it’s that parenting feels hard, even impossible.

When parents look back at a difficult child’s evolution they may see a child who was wonderful and then suddenly became difficult. Or they may see a child who has always been a challenge. Maybe they see a baby who was fussy, a toddler who was demanding, and the inevitable out of control teenager.

It makes a lot of sense that when we have a hard time with something, we assign blame to the thing that is causing us problems. In the case of parenting, we tend to think there is something wrong with the child.

And it may be true that you have a highly-sensitive child, a child who has special needs or a learning disability. Maybe you have a child who, through no fault of yours, experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have led to trauma. But it’s important to remember that relationships are between two or more people, and when we have a relationship problem, everyone in the relationship plays a role.

We are always and forever in a relationship with our child. And how we respond to and accommodate their difficulties impacts the relationship and the people within it. Sometimes we accidentally make a challenging child even more difficult to parent, even though that’s the exact opposite of what we want!

Making parenting easier

When we look at a child who is difficult to parent, people often begin by thinking about what is wrong with the child. But we miss a lot if we don’t look at how they have been shaped by the parent-child relationship.

This can be so challenging, and it is not coming from a place of parent blaming and shaming. But the fact is that we impact our children when we parent them. And we can often help our children if we acknowledge our own role in how they are behaving and feeling.

In fact, we can usually make parenting easier for ourselves if we work on how we parent our kids.

Almost nobody learns how to be a great parent

Our kids are handed over to us, and very few of us have any training in how to be a good parent. In fact, most of us learned everything we know from our own parents, who were likely untrained themselves, and television, movie, and book families, which are almost always over-simplified and deeply flawed. This incomplete education leaves us vulnerable to parenting mistakes.

If we were parented by controlling parents, we may do the same automatically. Or we will swing the opposite direction and become permissive. Most of us actually swing between controlling and permissive, which creates a very confusing environment for our kids.

Negative behaviors like using alcohol, sex, drugs, cigarettes, lying, cheating, poor grades, skipped classes, shoplifting, sexual promiscuity, vandalism, and eating disorders thrive when parents are not taught how to create a stable parent-child relationship.

This does not mean that parents are responsible for kids’ bad behavior, but it does mean that there are things parents can do to help kids find a healthier path.

Here are the steps parents can take to parent a difficult child:

1. Forgive yourself

The first step in learning to parent a difficult child is to forgive yourself. Many parents who have challenging kids are living with deep shame about their “failure” as parents. Work with someone who can help you process and work through that shame.

We all come from somewhere, and we all do our very best for our kids. The fact that your child is difficult is not your fault, but there is something you can do about it. And it all begins with having compassion for yourself.

2. Learn

Next, learn as much as you can about parenting. Focus your attention on understanding attachment. We have several articles on this topic, including:

There are some excellent books that teach the neuroscience of connection and safety, which underlie healthy parent-child relationships. Some of our favorites include:

Learn everything you can about healthy parent-child relationships. Most parents feel understandably defensive about parenting issues. But try to keep an open mind. Curiosity is the very first ingredient you need to learn something new.

3. Listen

One of the first things we lose when we have a difficult child is our ability to listen to them without judgment. This is because we’ve built a mountain of complaints and assumptions about them. But healing will come from compassion, not controlling or giving up. And compassion can only thrive in a safe space when a child feels like you listen to them.

Open up conversations about their choices, goals, and regrets. Truly listen as you would listen to your best friend. This will be more likely to put you in a place of acceptance and empathy, which will build trust in your relationship.

Give them space to express themselves imperfectly. Don’t jump in to tell them how they should have done something instead, how they should be looking at the problem, or any other form of advice. Most people will find their way to the right answer for them if given time and trust.

4. Repair

It makes perfect sense if you believe that your child has harmed you and that they are the ones who should be apologizing. But difficult children are unlikely to apologize unless they feel safe. And the best way to build safety is for you to repair any mistakes that you have made.

It costs nothing and will make a significant impact if you apologize to your child for past mistakes. This doesn’t mean you are taking the blame for their behavior, but it does mean you are taking responsibility for your behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Olivia, when I found out you were drinking, I yelled and completely lost my temper. I imagine that was probably scary. I’m really sorry.
  • Bryan, I realize that we were slow to get you the help you needed for your ADHD. I want to apologize for how my hesitation to get treatment for you impacted your early years in school,. I know that it has made school harder for you. I’m sorry.
  • Tisha, while I wish you were able to recover from your eating disorder, I realize that when I shamed you for eating those cookies, that was wrong. My anger was unhelpful, and I can see that what you need is support, not punishment. I’m sorry.

Some parents might worry that these statements let the child off the hook for their behavior. But quite the opposite often happens. When parents consistently work to repair their own mistakes and demonstrate vulnerability, their child is more likely to apologize for their own behavior.

5. Show up

When a child is difficult, it’s natural for the parent to want to spend less time with them. It’s frustrating and often exhausting to be with a child who is acting out. But building a safe, healthy parent-child relationship is the fastest route to transforming your situation.

Find ways to show up for your child. Eat meals together, go for walks together, watch their sports games or video game tournaments, and share time as often as possible. It’s all too easy to hide behind screens and doors today, but a difficult child needs their parents to show up and make space for this very important relationship.

Even if your child says they don’t want you around, they need you. Children need their parents, even when they are old and even if they have a complicated relationship. Just because your child is angry, withdrawn, or acting out doesn’t mean they don’t need your presence in their life.

Assertive parenting makes kids easier & more likely to succeed

Assertive parents are more likely to have kids who are easier to parent and also more likely to succeed emotionally and behaviorally. Some core components of assertive parenting include:

  • An expectation that parents and children each behave respectfully and honestly
  • Respect for the parent and child as individual people who have sovereignty over their own lives and choices
  • High expectations of positive behavior both within and outside of the relationship
  • Honest communication
  • Dedication to building a healthy parent-child relationship
  • Compassionate, positive interactions
  • Parents set boundaries and have authority to make decisions around the child’s health and safety
  • Empathy for each other

The assertive parenting model allows our children to live life on their own terms, even while living within acceptable conduct in the home and society.

Our kids will thrive under assertive parenting in ways that they will never thrive under controlling or permissive parenting. They will develop a strong sense of self, high self-esteem, and a powerful belief in their own self-worth.

And yes, they may still rebel. They may still be difficult to parent sometimes. But that’s because they are human beings living a human life, not because they are acting out against overly-rigid or permissive parents.

They may still develop eating disorders and do things like sneak out to go to a party and get drunk and call us to come and pick them up. But if they can rest assured of the safety of our relationship, they are more likely to thrive anyway.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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Back to school: mental health tips for parents

Back to school: mental health tips for parents

As we head back to school this year, mental health has never been more important for parents and kids. Rates of anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse and eating disorders are all on the rise. Parents can make a significant positive impact on kids’ mental health by following these mental health tips.

  1. Set up a morning routine
  2. Stay organized
  3. Set up a sleep hygiene system
  4. Get support for yourself
  5. Go easy on yourself (and your kids)

Parents often focus on kids’ behavioral issues and try to fix them. But there is very little we can do to change behaviors unless we address the underlying issues. Sure, we can attempt to control our kids, but it rarely improves mood and behavioral disorders like eating disorders.

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If your child has a problem you may believe that the only thing you can do is get your child into treatment. And it’s true that treatment may be necessary for them to heal. But there are also lots of things that parents can do to impact kids’ mental health. And they don’t cost a dime!

Parental behavior can have a larger impact on kids’ behavior and mental health than any other form of intervention. While this may seem daunting, changing our own behavior is often less stressful and time-intensive than attempting to fix our kids.

5 back to school tips for parents who want to improve kids’ mental health

Here are the five things parents can do to improve their kids’ mental health during back to school and beyond.

1. Set up a morning routine

We thrive on routine, and yet most of us resist structure and routine? Why? Because adopting a new routine can add more stress temporarily. But we know for sure that when we implement a morning routine and stick to it, our health improves. A morning routine is shown to reduce stress and improve sleep, eating, and physical condition.

If you have a child who has a mental health condition, a morning routine can be exactly what you need to improve their health. Parents must be in charge of and the key implementors of morning routines. It’s not enough to list out what must be done and expect kids to follow through. Part of the benefit of a family morning routine is the engagement it creates for parents and their kids.

But don’t worry: a morning routine doesn’t need to be complicated or take a ton of time. It can be simple as this:

  • Everyone wakes up at 6:30 a.m.
  • Brush teeth, hair, and get dressed by 7 a.m.
  • Gather for breakfast at 7 a.m.
  • Pick at least 2 ready-to-go breakfast items: cereal, milk, fruit, toast, hard-boiled eggs, pre-cooked bacon, nut/seed butter
  • Finish breakfast and leave the house by 7:30 a.m.

You can certainly adjust the timeline based on what works for your family. You may need to start earlier or later depending on your schedules. But aim to get all children and at least one parent involved in the morning routine every day.

2. Stay organized

Parents have a lot going on right now. It’s hard to juggle work and raising children. Our society does not make this easy for parents. We get it. And at the same time, it’s important for parents to stay organized and keep family life moving smoothly.

You are not expected to do this perfectly, but the more organized you remain, the better your kids’ mental health. Family organization varies for each family, but at a minimum, it should include the following elements:

  • A shared family calendar so that everyone knows about upcoming events, appointments, etc.
  • A weekly review of the week to come in which schedules are discussed and adjusted if needed
  • Organized work spaces that are stocked with pens, paper, chargers, laptops, and everything else that is needed to work at home
  • Regular meal times at which the majority of the family gathers at least once per day
  • Consistent bed times
  • Clear chore assignments for every member of the family

Every family will do this a little differently, but these elements combine to create a safe, structured environment in which kids’ mental health can thrive.

3. Set up a sleep hygiene system

Does your family believe in sleep hygiene? Have you taught the importance of following a sleep schedule to ensure that all of you get adequate sleep?

Most parents spend a lot of time thinking about nutrition, but very little time thinking about sleep. But sleep is probably the single most important element of physical and mental health. The diet industry spends billions per year telling people they are eating wrong. But the sleep industry has not done the same for sleep.

Getting enough sleep impacts every element of health:

Cognitive health: sleep improves concentration, productivity, and the ability to think clearly (it makes us smarter)

Mental health: adequate sleep is strongly associated with lower rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions

Physical health: sleep improves metabolism, cardiovascular health, endurance, speed, and coordination

A sleep hygiene system will help your entire family be healthier. Make sure you all apply sleep hygiene – parents need sleep as much as children do!

  • Establish a regular bedtime for each person
  • Turn off electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime
  • Create a night-time routine – use this time to connect with your child(ren) before sleep. Take time to connect with your partner and yourself, too!
  • Aim for the right amount of sleep every night based on the CDC’s sleep recommendations
  • Wake up at the same time every day

Parents can make a huge improvement in their kids’ mental health during back to school and beyond with sleep hygiene alone.

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4. Get support

Many parents are running on empty. They are juggling multiple responsibilities and trying to do it all with very little support. Parenting today is very stressful. We expect a lot of ourselves, and the conditions are unprecedented.

The United States is based on principles of individuation and self efficacy. But humans evolved to work in groups and support each other. This discrepancy is why so many parents feel unsupported and isolated. You may think you can handle the stress, but it negatively impacts your kids.

Parental stress is a huge stressor for kids, and it has a significant impact on their mental health. Kids who have stressed parents experience more cortisol, and that impacts their cognitive, mental, and physical health.

But don’t let this stress you out more! You just need to get more support. Build up your support structure so that you don’t pass your stress onto your kids:

  • Connect with other parents so you can share stories and swap babysitting if needed
  • Find a support group if your child has a challenge. For example, there are support groups for parents who have kids with autism, ADHD, eating disorders, substance abuse, cancer, diabetes, etc.
  • Get therapy or coaching if you are struggling with your child’s diagnosis and care

5. Go easy on yourself (and your kids)

Give yourself a lot of leeway for making mistakes. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to keep trying. Most parents worry that if they don’t know how to do something or if their child gets upset when they try, they should give up. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

Kids need us to have resilience and persistence when it comes to our relationship with them. The only way we can be resilient is if we go easy on ourselves. We will not be resilient if we’re beating ourselves up or constantly criticizing ourselves for getting it wrong or being bad parents. We have to give ourselves grace and time to try new things. Parenting takes time and effort, but it does get easier with practice. And parents can learn to do things better and more effectively. Get support from a therapist or coach if you need help with this.

And kids also need us to go easy on them. The more a child is acting up or driving us crazy, the more they need us. Parents tend to think that a difficult child needs more control and dominance. But in fact these children need us to have compassion and empathy for them. Healthy children have parents who accept them and trust them to find their own path even in difficult times.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

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How to listen to your child non-defensively

How to listen to your child non-defensively

Parents, it’s important to learn to listen to your child non-defensively. This means you take in what they are saying and accept their words without pushing back against them.

This is difficult, as most of us feel very defensive about our parenting. When a child tells us we upset them, we want to fight back and protect our right to parent as we see fit.

But a child’s deepest wish is to be truly seen, heard, and nurtured by their parent. When we respond to a child’s complaint with defensiveness, we cannot meet their fundamental need to feel loved and accepted.

When we listen to our child non-defensively, we’re embarking on a practice. It’s not something that we have to “master” or “perfect.” It’s OK to try our best and try again and again.

Here are the steps to listen to your child non-defensively:

When stuck in a loop of defensive listening, it can take time to learn to listen to your child non-defensively. It will also take them some time to trust that you won’t get defensive. Here are the steps to listen to your child non-defensively:

  1. Recognize that your child is making a complaint
  2. Take a deep breath and acknowledge your desire to fight back
  3. Say something that invites them to explain more
  4. Listen with compassion and patience
  5. Respond by acknowledging their feelings
  6. Tell them what you will do next

Most of us naturally tend towards defensive communication. Our society and parenting practices indoctrinate us into a system of power struggles between parent and child. Defensive communication is so common that we rarely recognize that we have the power to change the dynamic and improve our lives.

Signs that you may need to listen to your child non-defensively:

When you haven’t learned to listen to your child non-defensively, you may see some signs of distress in your child and yourself. It’s disruptive and uncomfortable, and it’s a symptom of a relationship that needs repair. Here are the signs that you need to learn to listen to your child non-defensively:

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

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

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1. Recognize that your child is making a complaint

We can’t interrupt and change a pattern unless we can recognize when it is happening. The first step in non-defensive listening is to recognize that our child has just made a complaint.

This is important because when children complain, parents immediately become defensive. Rather than fall into our usual habit of defending our right-ness, parents who recognize a child’s complaint can reduce their frequency and intensity.

Children rarely make direct complaints of their parents. If they do, that’s easy! But if your child is less confident, they may use behavior to make passive complaints. These are just as valid as direct complaints and include:

  • Using more swear words than usual
  • Ignoring you
  • Stalling when asked to do something
  • Pushing, throwing, kicking, etc.
  • Refusing to cooperate or do something when asked.

It’s important to note that the last point – refusing to cooperate – includes dangerous behaviors such as eating disorders, substance use, sleeping all day, etc.

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

Once you recognize that your child is making a complaint, take a deep breath. You need to create space between their behavior, which is instantly aggravating, and how you respond.

If you react before thinking and acknowledging your own response to their complaint, you will remain stuck in defensive communication.

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

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

3. Say something that invites them to explain more

You may need a few more minutes to breathe and gain your composure. Criticism is deeply triggering for most of us. So it helps to ask your child to tell you more about their complaint.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a powerful way to defuse tense situations. A complaint is essentially a way that our child is trying to tell us they need something. Give them the floor so that you can hear what they are actually asking for.

For example, if your child is refusing to do something, you can say “what does [doing the thing they’re resisting] mean to you?”

If a child is yelling obscenities, you can say “I can hear how angry you are. Can you tell me more about that?”

If you’re smirking right now, assuming this will not go well, that’s OK. Try it anyway. Just because something hasn’t worked in the past for you or you believe it will not work, try it anyway. If we have been in a pattern of defensive listening with our children, it will take time and practice for these conversations to flow. Keep trying!

4. Listen with compassion and patience

Most of us listen intending to respond. We spend the time while the other person is speaking coming up with our response. It feels like we are being more reasonable than the other person. We think if we just say the right thing in the right way, the conversation will resolve.

But conversations in which we are not listening to the other person – attending both to what is said, body language, and subtext – do not resolve.

We must practice listening to the person with an attitude of compassion and patience. We must listen to hear what they are trying to tell us.

Practice not even thinking about your response. Instead, think about what they are trying to communicate.

Our children almost invariably are complaining for a single reason: they feel we are not caring for them. Telling a person we care for them will not make them feel cared for. The only way a person will feel cared for is if we show them we care by listening.

5. Respond by acknowledging their feelings

Do not respond to your child’s complaint with justification for why you did what you did. Don’t respond with reasons your requests are reasonable and should be followed.

A child’s complaint is an exposure of their most vulnerable self. And our vulnerable selves are not looking for rationale and intellectualism. Our children are looking for us to see, hear, and nurture them.

We see, hear, and nurture a child by acknowledging their feelings.

When we accept a child’s feelings as valid and valuable, we transform their self-confidence. It may seem strange, but when we validate our children’s feelings, they complain less. They just need not try so hard when they feel justified for having feelings. Here are some ways to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings:

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

*when you do this, pay careful attention to your own feelings. Make sure you are not feeling contempt for your child’s feelings. They will sense it immediately, and the conversation will devolve.

6. Tell them what you will do next

Once you have validated your child’s feelings, it’s time to move onto next steps. Our impulse is to clamp down and tell our child that they need to just get over it and/or do what we asked them to do. But a more effective approach is to let your child know what you will do next. Here’s an example:

  1. Your child threw a tantrum because you asked them to take out the trash.
  2. You listened and understand that the genuine issue is that your child feels you ask them to do more than their sibling.
  3. You validated your child for feeling indignation over the unfairness of chores.
  4. You say “OK, well I will pay attention to this, and I’d like you to keep talking to me about it. Let’s work together to see how we can maintain equity in our home.”

Notice: you are not saying that it’s true, you treat them unfairly. You are not taking the blame for being a terrible parent. Your child has feelings that are valid, and you’re treating them respectfully.

Now that you have gone through this, decide the best next course of action. Perhaps it is to still ask the child to take out the trash. In fact, they may do this easily and with little grumbling once they feel validated.

Maybe you will take the trash out together to repair the relationship and show them that you are committed to your relationship. You have lots of choices. Just remember that the relationship in this moment is more important than the actual task of taking out the trash.

parent coach

Is this all a bunch of BS?

If you’re reading this and thinking that parents are getting “too soft” and that it’s all very ridiculous, that makes sense. Most of us are raised to believe that parents should put their relationships with their children first.

In fact, most of us are raised to believe that we should obey parents and parents should maintain their power in the relationship at all times. But take a glance at the “Signs that you may need to work on your non-defensive listening skills” listed above.

They are very unpleasant. Often they are even life threatening and could cause long-term complications for both our children and ourselves. Life is not easier when we try to control our children. In fact, life is awful when we try to control our kids.

Life is infinitely easier and more pleasant when we listen non-defensively and validate our kids’ feelings.

When we do this, we’re more likely to build a healthy environment for our children and increase the chances of our children maintaining close, healthy bonds to us for life.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.