If I had to offer parents one morsel of advice when their adolescent daughter is struggling with an eating disorder, I would repeatedly remind them to “Focus on the feelings and NOT on the food.”
Parents often feel helpless when they see their child not eating, especially during a holiday meal. As parents, we are responsible for instructing our children on the right things to do. After all, we have spent their lifetimes teaching and shaping their appropriate behaviors. Now, you absolutely cannot understand why they are seemingly choosing not to eat, so of course, you continually harp on them to “JUST EAT”. Let me explain what is going on….
First of all, eating disorders are thinking disorders. Your daughter (or son) has adopted a very strong belief system that by not eating, they will be handsomely rewarded with thinness beyond all thinness and that life will be much happier. At first, these adolescents are torn because their healthy brain (which still has some functioning), knows that desiring being sickly thin is not in their best interest. But, this fork in the road is where the eating disordered brain because increasingly stronger until the eating disorder (affectionately known as ED), has completely convinced the vulnerable individual that ED is very good for them and completely understands how they feel. They believe with every ounce of their being that following the messages of the eating disorder, i.e. don’t eat carbohydrates, don’t eat over 10 calories, make sure you read every nutrition label that you can, etc….. will enhance their life tenfold. As time goes on with the restricting adolescent, cognitions become skewed and they are truly unable to think clearly. However, they will not confront the eating disorder messages because these self-destructive messages support their irrational belief system.
So, telling your adolescent to “Just Eat”, not only is coming from you , the parent, feeling helpless, it is giving the adolescent the message that you just do not understand them. When you can let go of focusing on the food and not making this issue about your discomfort, you will be able to get more information from your child that will help you to understand the depths of their struggle. As parents, we need to let our children know that we are on their side and we are going to fight for their health and well-being. Professional support will help the entire family navigate this difficult journey.