How can a parent get their child who has anorexia to eat? One of the symptoms of anorexia is food refusal, which can lead to screaming matches at every meal. While parents are tasked with getting enough food into their kids’ bodies, your child may be determined to not eat anything.
This sets parents up for frustrating and scary fights over food. And since kids in recovery need to eat about six times per day, that’s a lot of yelling!
This week I heard from a mom who is facing daily screaming matches with her teenage daughter who is in recovery from anorexia. She is desperate to not only get her daughter with anorexia to eat, but also to avoid the stress of mealtimes. Here’s her letter:
My 14-year-old with anorexia nervosa is in recovery. She has a treatment team helping her, but it’s outpatient.
We’ve been fairly successful with getting her to eat, and she has been gaining weight. The problem is that she’s very picky about the menu and fights us at every meal. She’s having emotional outbursts morning, noon, and night. Every meal that we have with her anorexia is a full-on screaming match.
We’re doing our best, but the screaming at all hours is wearing us out. Can you help?
First of all, I want you to know that I have so much compassion for you right now, Jayla. You’re literally trying to save your daughter’s life, and she’s screaming at you. That just doesn’t feel good at all. Getting someone who has anorexia to eat is really hard and stressful.
I don’t think we spend enough time acknowledging how very hard it is to parent a child through eating disorder recovery, so I want to just begin by saying how sorry I am that you are experiencing this.
I know that most parents want to jump right into what they can do to change the behavior they’re seeing, but I always want to begin with some compassion. Because the fact is that we’re much more effective parents when we have compassion for ourselves.
And having compassion for ourselves makes it easier for us to have compassion for our kids, even when they’re behaving awfully.
Breaking down the behavior
OK, so let’s take a look at this behavior.
Your daughter has anorexia, and she’s screaming at you during every meal, but all you want is for her to eat. That is absolutely exhausting, and you’re right to be alarmed and want it to stop.
Yelling matches, especially around food, can trigger our deepest desire to make things OK. Usually, this means we respond by trying to offer our most reasonable and insightful words to try and defuse the outbursts. But this usually adds flame to the fire. And we end up feeling rejected and helpless.
So your daughter’s tantrums may look something like this:
She says something like: “I can’t eat that. I literally just can’t!”
You say something like:
- We agreed that you would eat this food.
- You’re doing so well.
- Please eat.
- This is good food.
- This was on your list of approved foods!
- I really can’t sit here all day with you.
- Just eat the food!
You may have noticed that no matter how carefully and thoughtfully you respond, she just yells louder and refuses harder.
Now, the good news is that she is actually eating. If she’s gaining weight, that’s a great sign that she’s eating. Please keep in close contact with her treatment team to make sure there’s nothing you need to change about her meal structure to support recovery.
So now let’s take a look at what’s happening in these arguments.
Your daughter is screaming words at you, and you want that to stop. So you try to be rational in your response to her, but it’s just not working. Now I have to ask. How scared and frustrated do you feel when she yells at you?
Now I’m not asking you to be super-human – I would expect that you’re scared and frustrated when she yells at you. But your fear and frustration is going to escalate the screaming, because she can sense your feelings.
You may think that I’m heading towards something about you squishing down your feelings and ignoring them. But that’s absolutely not it.
Our kids are totally tuned-in to how we actually feel inside, so no amount of superhuman willpower or self-control will stop her from sensing that you’re afraid and frustrated.
Instead, what I want you to try and do is calm yourself before you try to calm her down.
Here’s how it might go. She says something like: I can’t eat that. I literally just can’t!
Start by noticing how you feel when she says that. It would be normal to think to yourself: “I feel so angry and frustrated that we have to do this over and over again. Can’t she see how hard I’m working?” And give yourself some compassion: “This is so hard for me.”
Now, let’s work on your physical agitation. Most of us become physically anxious when we’re being yelled at. And it’s our physical state that typically triggers our kids’ behavior more than our words.
So, put both feet on the floor. Take four deep breaths, with a longer exhale than inhale. Breathe in for two counts, and out for three, four times.
This is going to calm your nervous system physically.
A lot of times we try to talk our way out of anxiety, but it’s usually faster to calm ourselves physically rather than linguistically.
Now, remind yourself that you are growing into the parent you want to be. You do not need to do this perfectly.
From a calm place inside, say something like: “I can see that you’re having a really hard time right now. I love you so much, and I’m really proud of you for facing these feelings.”
There are a couple of things going on here. First, how you FEEL matters more than what you SAY. You may have thought you were saying nice things before, but you might have been clenching your hands and gritting your teeth. I totally get it. We all get stressed when we’re being yelled at.
But when that happened, what you were saying did not match what you were feeling. Our emotions live in our bodies, and even if our minds are insisting that we’re “fine,” if we don’t actually feel calm, our kids can sense that.
Next, you are acknowledging and validating her feelings, while also trusting that she can tolerate her feelings. The incredible challenge here is not to come up with the perfect script to say, but to find a place inside of yourself that is calm, confident, and compassionate even when you’re being yelled at.
We think we need to calm our kids down when they’re yelling at us. But the only thing we can actually do is calm ourselves down.
Remember that food refusal (and screaming) during anorexia recovery is pretty normal, and it can make every meal tough, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
What we can do
We cannot make our kids calm down. But we have a better chance of them calming down if we calm ourselves down.
Our kids need us to see them, hear them, and accept them. The more they yell, the more afraid they are. The more they yell, the more they need us to stay calm, steady, and centered. The screaming ends when the child feels emotionally seen, heard, and held.
Now, I know this isn’t easy, and remember that I’m not asking you to repress your feelings. I’m asking you to acknowledge your feelings and hold them compassionately. That’s the only way we truly calm down.
Jayla, you’re on the front lines of dealing with this eating disorder. Learning how to defuse food refusal is an important skill that can be learned and practiced.
This is hard. And I know you can do it.
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If you want to learn more about how you can help your child recover, please reach out for parent coaching. I’d be glad to help!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.