What do you do when your child has an eating disorder and won’t talk about food and eating? It can feel impossible for parents who desperately want to help but can’t break through this barrier.
Today I’ll respond to a parent whose son has an eating disorder and refuses to talk about food and eating. This is a really common challenge that parents face during eating disorder recovery, particularly when they have older teens and young adults.
So I’ll share some thoughts about why this happens and how parents can respond in a way that supports recovery.
Our 20-year-old son has an eating disorder and is seeing a therapist for it. He lives at home, and I’m doing my best to support his recovery. The problem I have is that every time I try to talk to him about food, he explodes in anger. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t ask him anything about eating, and he refuses to eat with the family. So I have no idea how I can help him recover if he won’t even talk to me about food. Do you have any ideas?
Hi Caroline, I’m so sorry to hear this, and I know how hard it is to parent through an eating disorder. Having a young adult can make parental support even trickier than usual, so I understand why you’re concerned.
What I’m hearing from you is that when you try to talk to your son about food and eating, he either explodes or withdraws.
And while of course, I recognize that he has an eating disorder, and this is a very common response when a child has an eating disorder, I want to start by talking about anxiety.
Often when we think of anxiety, we think in terms of someone who is visibly afraid. Typically we imagine a person who says “I’m afraid,” and then we can address the fear.
But more common is when anxiety triggers the fight or flight response, which is our biological way of coping with anxiety.
Fight and flight
Fight most often looks like yelling, and flight most often looks like withdrawal.
So what you’re telling me is that your son is either fighting with anger or going into flight by avoiding meals with the family. While this can be really frustrating, even infuriating when all you’re trying to do is help, I think it’s important to know that it’s actually a natural anxiety response.
A lot of times when a child yells at us and withdraws it makes sense for parents to feel insulted and afraid for our child’s future. We may think things like “he can’t do this at work or he will be fired,” or “I raised him better than this!”
But these thoughts, while completely understandable, miss the fact that he’s having a physiological response to anxiety. His reactions have very little to do with his character or his ability to succeed, and they have almost everything to do with his anxiety.
Of course, when a child has an eating disorder, parents worry even more.
When he does this you may be thinking things like “this eating disorder has a complete grip on him,” and “he will never recover.”
Again, I completely understand the natural inclination to think that his behavior is a sign that the eating disorder has a terrible hold on him from which he may not be able to extract himself. That makes a lot of sense, but again, I think it’s more helpful to think in terms of anxiety rather than the eating disorder itself.
Anxiety and eating disorders
Anxiety is often a contributor to and a symptom of an eating disorder.
So I think it’s helpful to view it as an individual symptom rather than just lump it in with the eating disorder. Because anxiety is actually a very treatable mental health condition.
While eating disorder treatment has been chronically underfunded and underdeveloped, anxiety treatment is well-established and there are many evidence-based approaches to it.
I say this to give you hope.
When a child has an eating disorder it can feel overwhelming and intractable. And of course your son needs treatment for his eating disorder. And part of that treatment is going to be learning to cope with anxiety in new and adaptive ways.
The good news is that you can actually help with this. Because parents have a significant impact on kids’ anxiety.
We can actually reduce our kids’ anxiety symptoms just by changing our own behavior.
Now, your son is a young adult and is seeing a therapist for his eating disorder. This means that he is on a path to recovery.
Meanwhile, you want to help him with recovery, and you can.
But I have a feeling that you have been thinking that the way to help him with recovery is to help him control his food and eating. Whether you’re trying to get him to eat more or eat less or eat different things, you’re most likely focusing on the food.
And I totally get this, it makes sense.
But the way in which you do that has to acknowledge and adjust for his age and current mentality. The fact is that our kids don’t want to be controlled by us. And when they sense even a whiff of attempted parental control, they often feel anxious.
Avoiding parental control
Food is a deeply personal thing, and when parents try to control it, even with the very best intentions, our kids can push back aggressively or withdraw, both of which you’re seeing.
In fact, his response is a perfectly natural and normal way for a 20-year-old to respond to a parent who is trying to get them to do something.
Parents don’t like to think of themselves as controlling, but most often we get a bit controlling when we desperately want our kids to be healthy and happy. It’s coming from the best place. But unfortunately, parental control almost always backfires.
This isn’t a case in which you’ve done something wrong, it’s simply a case in which you tried one method and it’s not working.
That’s OK. Let’s try another method and see if that will work better.
Without knowing the details of how you’re handling food right now, I’m going to make some assumptions and do my best to give you some ideas with the limited information I have.
My advice assumes your son is currently medically stable and that you are not engaged in refeeding or using FBT right now.
More family meals
I’d like to see how many meals you can plan at home, and I’d like to see you providing as many sit-down family meals and snacks as possible. These don’t have to be formal, but what I have in mind is to set times at which you gather and share food every day.
You can put out a selection of different foods and let everyone pick their own, or you can make complete meals. You can order food, take food out of packages, cook from scratch, or any combination of those options.
The food itself isn’t as important as the fact that you are physically gathering around food several times per day at reliable times of the day.
Establish this habit for about a week and don’t ask him to join you. You can just say “we’re eating in the kitchen right now,” within his earshot, and leave it at that.
Remember that you’re trying to change your behavior – not his.
Focus on the routine
So focus on a routine of eating together, and try to make the routine pleasant. Have good conversations, connect with each other, and enjoy the time.
Let him hear and observe this behavior for a while without pushing him to engage.
You may be surprised to know that lots of times if you do this, your child will naturally be drawn to join you. The key though is to avoid any sense of coercion or pressure.
After a week or two of having regular, pleasant meals, he will likely start to “drop in” occasionally and join you.
If he does this, try not to comment on his behavior or monitor what he eats. Keep your eyes on your family’s eyes, not their plates. Focus on the connection, not the food.
Have foods that you know he loves available, but don’t offer them directly to him or make suggestions about what he puts on his plate or in his mouth.
This is how we avoid controlling our kids – we let them see and experience what we are offering without asking them to do anything. When we do this, we remove the pressure for them to perform.
And when we remove the pressure to perform, they will not get anxious in our presence.
Remove the pressure
The sense of being controlled can instantly trigger anxiety. And not only is anxiety unpleasant for you to be around, but it’s also an appetite-killer. And a connection-killer.So I know it can seem counterintuitive for me to ask you to lay off a little bit around food, but remember that I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying do something different.
Get the food, serve it consistently, and make mealtimes pleasant.
This is actually a lot of work!
It may not sound like the “right” action because you aren’t directly telling him what to do, but that’s the beauty of it. You’re creating the conditions for health rather than trying to control your child. And that will go a long way to recovery.
Please be patient with this approach. Your son has an eating disorder, and it will take time for him to relax around food. It may take weeks or even months for him to join you regularly for these meals, but please keep them up anyway, and avoid asking him to do anything. Over time, I have seen this approach change the dynamic of a child who won’t talk about food and eating.
Doing something diferent
This is about you doing something different rather than asking him to do something different.
This will reduce his sense of pressure around eating and show, rather than tell him that eating is a positive, healthy activity. When you have a child who won’t talk about food and eating, it helps to get curious, creative, and try new things.
Of course, if you notice your son’s eating disorder symptoms getting worse or are concerned about his physical health, then you will need to take another approach.
Caroline, I know how hard it is to deal with the anger and withdrawal you’re facing. It’s not easy to have a child with an eating disorder who won’t talk about food and eating. And I know how hard you are working to support your child. I hope this advice has been helpful, and I wish you all the best.
You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.