Expert Support for Parenting Your Teen's Eating and Emotions
May 2023 Newsletter
When someone you love is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, mealtimes can feel like a war zone. Tensions run high. There is a palpable fear in the room. Everyone is worried. What is this meal going to be like? is running through everyone's mind.
Meals can be silent and tense, or chaotic and filled with expletives. Having an eating disorder and eating, often 6 times a day, is like asking a person with a spider phobia to be covered in tarantulas multiple times a day, over and over again. I always want families to know: if you are in the throes of this, you are not alone and it does usually get better over time, especially if you are getting good support.
So what can you do as a parent to help bring some peace back to your dinner table?
First, recognize what is coming up for you, as the loved one. Are you feeling scared? sad? hopeless? helpless? Being aware of your own emotional reactions to meals can really help you prepare for what you will need to stay calm in the face of your loved one's struggles.
Second, come to the table with some go-to strategies on how you will regulate in the moment. Have a breathing exercise that you practice throughout the day to help de-escalate your own nervous system during tough moments at the table. Don't have a breathing exercise? Google some ideas and start to practice. This is a must-have for any caregiver emotion regulation tool kit.
Third, be sure to continue to separate your loved one from their eating behaviors. Your loved one is not their struggles with food and the behavior they may exhibit during meals is not indicative of who they are deep down. Just like the spider phobia, we can all behave in ways that are not totally "rational" or in alignment with our values when we are under extreme duress, even if that duress doesn't "make sense" to someone else. (You can ask my husband who has had to compassionately hold my hand during perfectly normal plane flights during which I have been 100% convinced that we are going to crash.) When your loved one is really struggling, it can help you stay in a place of compassion to remember that, in their mind, this is an incredibly awful, hard scary thing, even if to you it is "just breakfast".
And don't forget to find some time to refuel. Supporting a loved one through meals can be challenging, so be sure you are doing your best to get rest, food and your own support. As we like to say, you can't pour from an empty cup so be sure to prioritize your own self-care.
Want more meal time tips? Check out my favorite meal time resources below!