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Eating Disorders & the Parent-Child Relationship: Why the Best Parent is a Listening Parent

eating disorders parent-child relationship

Written by: Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD & Judith Brisman, PhDeating disorders parent-child relationship

The parent-child relationship during adolescence is incredibly complex and gets infinitely more complicated if an eating disorder is involved. Here’s how listening can help parents and caregivers.

Have you seen the film “Ladybird”? This film is an incredible meditation on the ups and downs of parenting an adolescent, a journey inevitably filled with ruptures. Kudos to a film that portrays the heartache and struggle of both mother and daughter as we witness them juggle the process of adolescence – that of holding onto and letting go of the person you love. For almost every parent and child, adolescence includes these kinds of ruptures.

The word “rupture” usually conjures up something negative. But that’s not how we see it. Ruptures are inevitable and are opportunities, laying down the path to separation and individuation, the major goals of adolescence.

What is a Rupture?

A rupture is any interaction that stalemates connection, growth, or communication. Ruptures often arise from misattunement, affect dysregulation, ineffective communication, and boundary violations. In “Ladybird”, we witness an enraged adolescent jumping out of a moving car to get away from her mother – this certainly is an extreme example of rupture!

Ruptures & Eating Disorders

Ruptures take many forms – they include behavioral moves (as in the “Ladybird” example), angry fights, and/or stonewalling in which one person silently walks out, arms crossed-over chest, refusing to speak.

An eating disorder, in and of itself, is a rupture. When underlying needs and concerns cannot be identified or articulated, they go underground. Food, weight, and body size become the focus. Communication revolves around the eating issues, resulting in a rupture of connection both with oneself and with others.

What must be emphasized is that complex, unarticulated emotional and relationship issues always lie buried beneath eating disordered symptoms. For example, starving might be a teen’s way of achieving independence, and bingeing might be a cry for help, announcing inner hungers. In both situations, internal pain is expressed in a way that disrupts communication and connection. The real pain itself is not heard.

An adolescent’s eating disorder will inevitably provoke yet another rupture. Watching them starve, purge or binge is likely to activate a parent’s involvement in the every-day minutia of their child’s life. Just at a time when, developmentally, independence and autonomy are needed, moms, dads and/or caregivers are pulled into more intensive parenting.

Why Listening Matters

Parents often tell us, “I had this sweet kid before they went into treatment. We were best friends. Now all they do is tell me what’s wrong with me. Is this good treatment? The truth is, maybe it is the first stage of their recovery.

When an adolescent develops an eating disorder, often they are unaware of what exactly is bothering them. The focus on food and weight keeps them distracted from their inner pain and discomfort. Often one parent – the person usually in charge of monitoring food – is a safe target.

When a child lashes out, the parent’s job is to sit tight, breathe deeply, try not to take the attacks personally and understand that this may be a struggle to figure themselves out. This may be their first step in putting feelings into words, as thwarted as the attempt may be. Listen, Listen, Listen is our advice to parents. The goal is to encourage them to focus on their internal life.

How to Be a Listening Parent

The first line of action is often to connect to your child by speaking their language, that of food and weight. This is their way of saying that something is wrong, that they are hurting. Get in there and listen. Be empathic. Stay with their concerns.

Next, what you will need to do will depend on many specifics of the situation you are facing. Food and weight will need to be addressed. Your role will vary depending on your child’s medical situation and eating behaviors. Physicians, professionals, or support groups with eating disorder expertise can help you determine how best to support the stage for recovery.

The overall goal is to help them find words for their feelings. No matter the illness or eating patterns, words and feelings need to begin to replace restrictive eating, purging, or binging. This means that your child will need to begin to talk about things that bother them, situations that make them feel uncomfortable, moments when they don’t feel heard. And that sometimes is as difficult as coping with the eating behaviors themselves. One of the hardest things is knowing your child is upset and you don’t have an easy way to fix things.

5 Guidelines for Being a Listening Parent

The best parent is the listening parent. Here are some guidelines:

  1. While you may need to be part of a treatment plan that changes behaviors (i.e., setting up meal plans), you can’t change their feelings. When your adolescent is upset, just listen. Change is hard and this is their way of saying that they’re hurting.
  2. Set boundaries – if your adolescent is hurtful or mean, avoid storming out of the room. Let them know you want to hear what they have to say, but not in a way that is hurtful to you. You may have to leave the conversation but always come back to try again.
  3. Use your own feelings when communicating. Be thoughtful about your relationship. You might say, “I want to be there for you, but I don’t know what you need and I’m worried.” Admit your vulnerabilities; you might say, “I feel insecure when I don’t know what to do and I hate feeling helpless.” Letting them know you are imperfect may give them permission to accept their own struggles.
  4. Again and again, check in. Give the message that you want to know how they feel, not just what they are doing with food.
  5. Know that there is an ambivalence-sadness as well as pleasure that comes with kids taking hold of their own lives. Recovery from an eating disorder means that they are one step closer to leaving home (even if they are already out the door). Allow a place for your own feelings, too.

Conclusion

Ruptures in and of themselves, while inevitable, are NOT what allow for growth. What allows for growth are ongoing attempts at repairing the ruptures: coming back, again and again, letting them know you are still there and that you want to put words to what happened and that you want to know them better.

As your child recovers, their identity will change and so will yours. By talking about food and weight, you are connecting with them around their concerns. Then, by talking about feelings – yours and theirs – you are helping them launch their life without an eating disorder blocking their way. You are setting the stage for the next chapter of your ongoing relationship.

References:
1. Brisman, J.,Weinshel, M., Siegle,M. Surviving an Eating Disorder:Strategies for Family and Friends. (4th Ed.) Harper Perennial, 2021.
2. Rabinor J. The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. She Writes Press, 2021.

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