Today we’ll hear from a parent who wants to convince her daughter that she knows the best eating disorder treatment, but her daughter refuses to listen. I’ll talk through what this parent can do to increase her influence and support her child’s eating disorder recovery.
Our daughter is 23 and has been in and out of eating disorder treatment since she was 18. I’m so exhausted by the whole process, and it’s been frustrating to have to do all this with her as a legal adult since we are cut out of so much and haven’t been able to make the decisions we believe would be best for her.
My husband and I feel like we know what she needs to do to get better, but she refuses to talk to us about treatment programs and modalities, even though we’re the ones paying for her health insurance and treatment bills. She says we’re controlling and refuses to listen to anything we say.
I’m at my wit’s end.
How can I convince our daughter that we know what’s best for her eating disorder treatment so that we can finally put this behind us?
Hi, Amanda. I can imagine how exhausted you are by all of this. Five years is a long time to watch someone you love struggle, and I’m sure you have done a ton of research and invested countless hours into how your daughter can get better. Of course you want to convince your daughter to choose the best treatment available.
When your child is over 18, it can be really hard to access her medical information and influence and streamline her care. Since she is a legal adult, her providers are not obligated to share information with you, which I know is frustrating for many parents in your situation. In fact, about half of my clients have kids who are over 18, so I see this a lot.
What I’m hearing in your question is that you would like to have more influence over her treatment, which makes so much sense. And I’m also hearing that she is resisting your influence and choosing her own treatment instead. It’s very hard to convince your daughter that you know the best treatment when she won’t even talk about it with you!
What’s going on
Influence is something that all parents crave. We want our kids to be healthy and happy, and if we believe we have the answer to how they can do that, we would really like to be able to influence them to make the best decisions.
Meanwhile, while you’re seeking to influence her, your daughter uses the word “controlling.” This is a harsh word that most parents reject since very few of us see ourselves as trying to control our kids. Most of us are just trying to help the best we can.
You see your advice as helpful and useful. Of course, you have invested time, energy, and money in her recovery, and you would like to support her in getting better. You want to convince your daughter that you’ve found the best treatment for her eating disorder, but she believes your attempts to influence her are in fact attempts to control her.
So why is that?
The most likely explanation is a question of style versus content. What I mean here is that your information and advice could be helpful to her, but your technique is just not working. Someone who says she feels controlled usually means that she doesn’t feel you have treated her own views and opinions with respect.
Why are parents accused of being controlling?
Here’s what this often looks like.
She says, “I think I should go to this treatment center.”
You say, “I did a bunch of research, and their reviews are terrible. I think you should go to this treatment center.”
And the conversation goes back and forth, each of you getting more frustrated with the other.
You both have valid points. You each get a voice in this conversation. But in this conversation, parents often make a classic communication mistake. They don’t start by validating the child’s perspective and views.
Without any validation that you have heard and respect her beliefs, she won’t trust your perspective or hear anything you have to say. When you invest time and energy in actively validating her perspective, you build trust and increase the chance that your very good information will be considered. This is the best way to convince your daughter to accept the treatment you have in mind.
Here’s what this could look like.
She says, “I think I should go to this treatment center.”
You say, “That’s worth thinking about. What do you like about that treatment center?”
Now, at this point, you may believe you’ve been over this 100 times with her. You may think you know exactly why she wants to pick that treatment center.
But if she says she feels controlled by you and refuses to take your advice or even talk to you, she does not feel validated. So there’s work to be done. Keep validating!
She may say, “I already told you they have a really good program. It’s the best.”
And you say, “Okay, that makes sense. I want you to go to the best treatment program too. What criteria are you considering when you say it’s the best? I’d like to understand what you’re looking for.”
Respectful conversations build trust
When you use validation, you’ll find yourself having a normal, grown-up conversation with her about a very important decision. And even if you believe you have a better answer than her, slow down and listen. I can’t overstate this enough. You cannot share your very good information with her until she feels you truly understand and respect her perspective.
If you find this hard to do, that’s okay. Just practice. Many parents find this difficult, and it’s never too late to get better.
Now I’m going to make the conversation get a little bit silly.
She says, “It’s the best program because they don’t force me to eat. I don’t have to do therapy, and they let me have my cell phone 24×7.”
To this, you would say, without judgment or sarcasm, “Sure. So you like this program because there’s a lot of freedom and flexibility.”
And she says, “that’s right.”
You say, “That makes sense to me. I can definitely understand how important freedom and flexibility are to you.”
Seeing a shift
At this point, you may see a shift. If you don’t, then keep working on validation. You’re looking for her to say something like “That’s, right,” “Yes,” or “Correct.” That means she feels heard and understood, and you have shown that you really understand what matters to her.
If you don’t hear those words or see a shift, then keep working on the validation. You should see her shoulders drop and her defensive posture relax. When that happens, you have adequately validated her.
Only then can you even consider bringing in your own ideas. For example, if you sense – truly sense – that she feels validated and relaxed, you could continue the conversation like this.
You could say, “I’m so glad we talked about this because I think we both agree that finding the best program for you is important. And I’m glad that you told me how important freedom and flexibility are for you. I’ve done some research too, but now that I know more about what you’re looking for, I’d like to go back over my notes and think some more about the options. Would that be okay with you? Can we talk about this some more tomorrow?”
Take time to reflect
Taking the time to reflect on what she says is very important because it shows her that you respect her opinion and ideas.
When trying to influence someone, it’s usually better to slow down.
Our instinct is to rush forward to present facts and figures and information. But what you want to do is move at the speed of trust. And trust takes time and requires the other person to feel like you really get them.
She will most likely say yes to further conversation if she feels validated.
You’ll know if she doesn’t feel validated if she tries not to have another conversation with you. It’s okay. You may have to invest a lot of time validating, but this upfront effort is well worth the effort.
This style of conversation is something we do when we’re working with peers, partners, professionals, and coworkers. It’s something that FBI negotiators do when they’re talking to terrorists and hostage takers. It’s something very effective business people do when negotiating multimillion-dollar deals.
It simply doesn’t work to just present ideas and facts without considering the other person’s position.
Build validation skills
When we use validation, which is using words and actions to show the other person we take them seriously and respect their opinions, beliefs, and desires, we increase our influence. And if we don’t validate, we’re unlikely to influence the other person positively.
Many very loving and wonderful parents don’t learn this skill when talking to their kids, especially when the stakes are high. In your case, the stakes are extremely high. You’re looking at a serious investment of time, emotions, and money.
And that means that how you approach this conversation is very important. I would say this conversation about her treatment is as delicate and important as a multimillion-dollar business negotiation.
Nobody would walk into a multimillion-dollar business negotiation without doing their research, planning their approach, and being skillful and thoughtful in their approach. A multimillion-dollar business negotiation requires advanced communication skills. And the most successful people get coached and practice their communication skills to get the best results possible.
And parents can do the same thing.
Continuing the conversation
Begin the next day’s conversation by recapping what you heard from her in your previous conversation. Then evaluate the program she has chosen based on what she’s looking for. By doing this, you validate her.
You show her that you respect her opinions.
Next, you can present your goals.
You could say something like, “I, too, value your freedom and flexibility. In fact, it’s something I want so much for you. I want you to have freedom from your eating disorder and the flexibility to live your life without it. And that’s why I’d like to discuss this more with you and share some of my ideas. Would that be okay?”
You want to get her agreement because you are building trust and respect in this conversation. Don’t lose patience and try to steamroll her. If you do that, you’ll have to go back to the beginning and repeat all the steps you’ve gone through so far, often plus more.
When we’re working with people, especially about emotional topics, slow is fast, and fast is slow.
Take your time
So take your time. When you take your time, you show her that you respect her and increase your ability to influence her decisions. Some parents may feel this lengthy conversation is a waste of time. I would say that not having this sort of thoughtful, skillful, slow conversation will waste a whole lot more.
Influence requires trust, and trust takes time to build. When we take the time to build trust with validation and care, we can actually move quickly and assertively towards great solutions.
It’s a classic case of working smarter, not harder. Responding rather than reacting, being strategic rather than impulsive.
At this point in the conversation, you can thoughtfully and skillfully present your opinion on her chosen program and offer a few options for other programs. Always remember that you must reflect her desire to have freedom and flexibility or whatever she has identified as her goals in some way. Use the words she used when she told you what mattered to her so that she is constantly reminded that you heard and understand her.
If you build trust by using validation, this conversation will likely result in a mutually agreeable decision. More importantly, this conversation will bring you closer together, which is more important than anything else.
As much as all of us would like to quickly and decisively tell our kids what to do, we simply can’t do that. It just doesn’t work.
We owe it to our kids to listen to what they say and respectfully validate their beliefs and wishes.
You can still set boundaries
To be clear, that doesn’t mean you must agree with her beliefs and wishes, but you need to accept that they are hers. If you do this, you can still set a boundary around what program you will pay for.
Validating her thoughts and beliefs doesn’t make you obligated to do what she would like you to do with your money. Your money is yours, and you get to make decisions about how to spend it.
But it’s really best to only set a boundary once you are sure you have truly listened to and understand her point of view.
Attempting to set boundaries before validating her position makes it less likely that you can influence her and also puts your relationship at risk.
Amanda, I know you would like to convince your daughter that you know which is the best treatment for her. I understand that my answer asks you to do a lot of listening, which may feel frustrating and time-consuming. But it is the best possible way to influence someone in a high-stakes conversation.
This is advanced-level negotiation and communication, but I know you can do it. Good luck!
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