Today we’re going to hear from a parent whose teenager has an eating disorder and never seems to be happy. While the parent is trying really hard to make the child happy, it’s just not working.
My teenage daughter has an eating disorder, but my main problem right now is that she’s never happy anymore. She used to be a really happy kid, but now it’s as if she is allergic to being positive, upbeat, or optimistic.
It seems like no matter what I say, she responds with either anger, sadness, or at best listlessness. I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve tried all the things that used to work – going shopping, buying her something, telling her a funny story. But nothing works. She won’t even go shopping with me unless I force her.
What can I do to lift her spirits?
Oh Dianne, I can imagine how hard it is to be working so hard and hoping for a positive response. And when a child has an eating disorder you’re already scared and worried about her, so of course it’s hard to feel as if she’s never happy. You would like to see her laugh and have some fun. That makes a lot of sense.
And here’s a strange way to do it.
The best thing you can do to lift their spirits is to help her fully feel all her feelings, including the negative ones. Humans have the capacity for six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, surprise, sadness, and happiness. Now you can see that out of six emotions, only one is positive.
This is an over-simplification, but that means that on average we might feel happy about one-sixth of the time. The other five-sixths of the time we probably feel those other things – anger, disgust, fear, surprise, and sadness.
My point is that happy is just one of six core emotions. And if we try to control or ignore the other five, we accidentally dull our capacity for happiness.
So if you want her to feel happiness and show you happiness, then the first assignment is to help her show you her negative emotions.
How to work with negative feelings
Now I can guess that what you want to say to me right now is that she is showing them to you. After all, you wrote in your letter that all she’s showing you is anger, sadness, and listlessness.
So it may feel to you as if you’re already doing this. But I’m going to guess that when she shows you those feelings you are trying to make them stop as quickly as possible. I’m guessing you don’t like to be in the same room as her negative emotions.
I get it! It can be hard to witness feelings when we think there’s something wrong with them.
She comes home from school and you smile brightly and say “hi, honey, how was your day?”
And you’re desperately wanting a happy response from her. That makes sense!
But instead, she answers angrily with “it sucked.” then stalks into her bedroom and slams the door.
So in your mind, she just showed you her anger. And in some ways she did. But you didn’t actually get a chance to help her experience that anger in a safe place.
Another approach to anger
So here’s how it could go instead:
She comes home from school and you casually say “hi.”
She stalks past you angrily and goes into her room, slamming the door behind her.
You knock on her door, open it, and say, “hey, honey, you seem angry.”
She says “yeah I’m angry! Everything is so stupid!”
And you say “yeah, I get that. There’s a lot going on for you right now.”
Right there, at that moment, you saw her anger and treated it with respect. You allowed her anger to exist safely in the same room as you. And doing that shows her that you can tolerate all of her – and all of her emotions – no matter how messy they get.
It may take some time for you to be able to withstand being in the same room as her anger. It’s a practice, and it will get easier with time.
I know how scary it can be to feel your child’s anger, especially since most of us think our kids shouldn’t feel anger or that anger is always destructive. The first secret is knowing that anger is not typically a dangerous emotion unless we try to control it.
That’s when it can tip into rage and even violence against ourselves or others.
But remember that anger is one of the six basic emotions. It’s a perfectly acceptable and normal part of the human experience. And you don’t need to be afraid that there is something wrong with her for feeling angry.
It’s better if she can feel it in the safety of your relationship than try to shove it down with an eating disorder.
Let’s take a look at her other big emotion right now – sadness.
Let’s imagine you find her crying in her room.
“Why are you crying?” you ask?
She just keeps crying.
“Do you want to go shopping? We could get that necklace you’ve been wanting.”
But she just cries more and tells you to go away.
So you close the door and walk away, feeling hopeless.
Let’s try it another way.
You find her crying in her room.
“Oh honey, it looks like you’re sad,” you say.
She keeps crying.
You get a box of tissues and sit near her without asking her to do anything. You gently hand her a tissue, but if she refuses, that’s OK. You take it back. You can say things like “I’m sorry you’re sad, honey.”
You try to rub her back a little bit and if she relaxes into your hand, you keep going. If not, you don’t take it personally and remove your hand.
After a little while, she may say “why are you still here?”
And you can say “honey, I don’t always know what to do when you are sad, but I’m not going to leave you alone with your sadness anymore. That just doesn’t sit right with me. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but I’m going to stay right here and let you know that I see your sadness and you don’t have to go through this alone anymore.”
In both of these scenarios, something drastic changed. Instead of leaving her to process her feelings alone, you are stepping in and being with her while she feels her feelings. You are OK with her feelings. Not afraid of them. Not trying to make them go into hiding.
When she starts to feel safe with you when she feels hard things like anger and sadness, she will begin to feel safe with you when she feels happy.
This will take time.
A person recovers from their eating disorder when they begin to process their feelings rather than numbing them. Many kids who have an eating disorder seem like they are never happy, and this is because they are dealing with an emotional processing disorder. They need to learn to process and feel feelings in an adaptive way. And nobody is better equipped to help a child learn to process feelings than a parent. The key is knowing that all feelings get to exist safely with us.
In our culture we have become overly focused on happiness. Most of us strive to be happy and upbeat. And most of us wish only for our children to grow up happy.
Live, laugh, love sounds awesome, but it misses the humanity of each of us.
This attempt to maintain bliss all the time keeps us locked in a prison in which we can’t feel our emotions and miss out on the richness of life. Remember – if we can’t feel the negative emotions, we don’t feel the positive ones, either.
You can’t selectively numb feelings. We can’t live, laugh, love all the time.
Emotions are not a problem
What most of us have to learn is that we think our emotions are a problem. But our emotions are never a problem. They are just messengers, and they have something important to tell us. They have a reason for existing.
How we respond to our emotions makes a huge difference in our lives.
When we deny our negative emotions and try not to feel them we have to develop coping behaviors like eating disorders, an extra glass of wine at night, or too much shopping online.
When someone has an eating disorder they are numbing and avoiding feelings. So the problem is not that she’s never happy. The problem is actually even bigger. It’s that she is trying not to feel much at all.
And we need to help her feel. And we can.
Nobody is better at this than a parent. We are biologically connected to our kids. We are designed to be their emotion interpreters and coaches. We can help a child who has an eating disorder and never feels happy start to feel all their feelings, including happiness. When we learn the skills to help our kids process their feelings safely with us, they learn how to do it for themselves.
Here’s the simple process for doing this:
- Notice they’re having a feeling
- Label the feeling the best you can
- Welcome it – it’s worthy and important
- Sit through it – let it exist
- Believe that your child can handle all feelings. You must hold this belief firmly to do this well.
- Let the emotion move on when it’s ready – it always will as long as we are respecting its right to exist.
Our goal when a child has an emotional processing disorder like an eating disorder is to help them learn that feelings are safe to feel. When they can feel feelings safely with us, with a parent who has the wisdom and knowledge that they’re going to be OK, they learn to do this for themselves.
They no longer need the eating disorder as a way to numb their feelings because they believe that they can feel their feelings safely and trust that they will pass. When she knows that she is really not alone with her scary feelings, she will slowly start to process them without you. But that’s stage 2.
In stage 1 – right now, you need to help her. You can help her learn that she can feel her feelings without upsetting you. When you can sit quietly and calmly and accept her feelings, she will learn that she can do that too.
Give it a try!
Dianne, this is a significant shift in thinking and behavior. I know how hard it is to have a child who has an eating disorder who seems like they are never happy. And I don’t expect this to go smoothly and perfectly. In fact, I would anticipate pushback and bumps in the road.
But this is lifesaving work that will truly help your daughter recover. It will also bring you closer to her, and ultimately make it more likely that you will see her happiness again.
I hope you give it a try, and I wish you all the best!
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