Today we’re going to hear from a parent who is having trouble with yelling at their child who has an eating disorder.
I’m going to talk through how this parent can start to respond differently and in the process deepen their connection and relationship with their child.
My child has an eating disorder, and I know that I’m supposed to be supportive and loving during this time. But my problem is that I keep losing my temper! It’s just incredibly hard to listen to the endless body comments and face meals with someone who doesn’t want to eat like the rest of us.
And it goes beyond eating. My kid resists literally everything I ask her to do, and I really don’t know how I’m supposed to help if she refuses every offer to help.
But the real issue is that I’m ashamed of myself, and it seems to be getting worse. The more I yell and scream, the more I yell and scream, if you know what I mean. I know that I should not be yelling at my child at any time, but especially since she has an eating disorder.
She just makes me so angry, and I hate that I lose it, but I seriously can’t control myself.
Oh Cody, I know how hard this is. It sounds to me like you and your daughter are in a difficult place, and I’m really glad you reached out. I know how hard it is when it seems like once you start losing your temper it can start to steamroll, and suddenly it feels almost normal. And you’re right that we’d like to stop yelling at a child during eating disorder recovery and beyond, and I can help you do that.
A lot of times in this situation it’s natural to point fingers. Some people might say your child is oppositional and resistant. Other people might blame the eating disorder for these fights. Still other people may suggest you have a problem with an uncontrollable temper.
But here’s the thing: when things like this happen, it’s never just one person or one thing.
Whenever we have two people involved in something, what’s going on is a relational dance in which two people are responding to each other.
And in this case, the dance looks like this:
Your move: you ask her to do something
Her move: she resists you
Your move: you lose your temper
Sure, there may be some slight variations, a little flair here or there, but this is the basic dance structure.
Interrupt the dance
So I hear that you want to change the dance, and that’s great, because you can. It only takes one person to change a relational dance.
And let me be very clear: changing your moves in this dance may sound simple but it’s not easy. This is a major undertaking, and I also know it will be very effective and improve every aspect of your relationship.
So the first thing is to notice that your anger isn’t coming from nowhere. Your anger is showing up in response to your daughter. And the second thing to notice is that her pushback isn’t coming from nowhere, either. Her pushback is showing up in response to you.
So here we see the dance, and now we want to change the steps so you can stop yelling at your child who has an eating disorder.
Change the steps
So what does that mean?
Well, first I want you to try and flip your approach to your daughter.
Most of the time we give big reactions to our kids when they do something we don’t like. This is what’s happening now. You’re giving her a big emotional response to the things you don’t like.
But what this means is that your relationship is filled with negative rather than positive interactions. So I want you to start noticing when she does things you do like. And I want you to start giving her bigger reactions to those things.
This is because a lot of times when we start focusing on a negative dance, we lose sight of the positive aspects of our dance partner.
So catch her doing things you appreciate.
It’s OK if this is small, like saying you appreciate that she woke up to her alarm by herself, did her homework even when she didn’t want to, agreed to clean her room, saw a friend over the weekend, or even just that she said “please” or “thank you.”
These are small things that can be appreciated in any child, but particularly when they are in eating disorder recovery when every step like this is truly positive and encouraging.
Stay neutral about food and body issues
One note though, try to keep your interactions around food, eating, and weight neutral. When it comes to these topics, you want to keep your tone of voice and responses neutral: neither big nor small.
This may sound counterintuitive, but we can strike up a very dangerous dance with kids over food, eating and body image issues. So of course your natural instinct is to focus your attention on these areas since they’re a problem, but this can perpetuate behaviors and acting out as a part of your relationship.
OK, so you’re practicing appreciating the positive in your daughter and telling her when you appreciate her. You should be able to catch her doing something you appreciate at least five times per day. And you’re responding as neutrally as possible when it comes to food, eating, and body issues.
The negative dance
Next, let’s take a look at the negative dance.
Remember how I said that it only takes one person to change a dance? Well, it’s true. And that person needs to be you.
So your goal is to stop reacting to her pushback and resistance with anger. This is going to be really, really hard.
You’re going to need to really learn to understand your anger and respond to it differently. Right now your anger feels like it’s coming out of nowhere and it’s exploding uncontrollably. So we want to change your relationship with your anger so it’s not in control of your interactions with your daughter.
I’d like to give you an analogy that might help.
I have a sweet rescue dog called Molly. When we first got Molly she had a real problem with the doorbell. It would ring, and she would totally freak out.
Just like anger in our bodies, when something happened – the doorbell ringing – Molly’s response was instant and uncontrollable.
She would bark loudly and aggressively. And she’s the sweetest dog! It was so weird.
Of course, I wanted to stop Molly from doing this. So I tried everything I could think of to stop Molly from barking.
I tried yelling at her, I tried speaking very loudly and sternly, I tried keeping her on a leash. I tried a lot of different techniques.
But the thing that finally worked was a bit of a surprise. I started thanking Molly for barking at the doorbell and telling her I’ve got it under control and she can stop now.
And she stopped.
But actually not.
Why we bark
Just like our anger, Molly was barking for a reason. She felt it was her responsibility to protect us from the doorbell when it rang, so she barked.
But when I yelled or tried to shut her down, she felt less secure. Like, how is this lady who is yelling at me possibly going to save us from the doorbell? She’s out of control! Clearly, I must bark more!
When I stopped being mad at Molly and thanked her instead, she trusted that I was in charge and that she could stop worrying about the doorbell.
When we start yelling, we often feel out of control and then try to shut it down. But the anger is in response to something scary. It’s just an alarm system.
We may feel embarrassed or even ashamed of our anger, so we try all sorts of controlling tactics to get rid of it or switch it off. But that approach just scares the Molly part of us that is trying to protect us from danger.
Something happens, and our anger rises up to defend us. That makes sense.
So rather than hate our anger or try to control it, rather than call it a bad dog, it actually works better to thank it for the alarm, but reassure it that we’ve got this handled.
Thanking our anger
Let me show you how this might work with your daughter.
You ask her to put her dishes away after a meal. She tells you she doesn’t have to and suggests you are a bad mother for even asking.
You feel your anger rising. You can feel the yell coming up in your chest, ready to explode out of your mouth. But instead of letting the yell out, you respond differently.
Let me show you what this could look like.
You ask her to clear away her dishes from the table. “Sweetie, can you please clear your dishes?” you say, trying to sound non-confrontational.
“Ugh. Mom. You’re always bugging me. Will it ever stop? I’m literally drowning, and you want me to clear my freaking plate?” she says aggressively and dismissively.
You feel your anger rising up, and you thank it for its service and say “I’ve got this.” Now, from a calm, clear place, from your best self, you can say something like “that may be so, but I’d still like you to put your dishes in the sink.”
And now you have changed the dance.
Prepare for pushback
Don’t get me wrong – your daughter will most likely push back again. But each time she does, and each time your anger rises up to try and protect you from her, you can remember that you’ve got this.
And you will thank your anger and respond from a place of calm assurance instead. You’ve got this.
And sometimes she will put her dishes in the sink, sometimes she won’t. But the important thing is that you have changed the relational dance. You are no longer engaging in a dysfunctional dance of resistance and yelling.
You are now engaging with her from your best self.
And what I know from my own experience and from working on this with my clients is that if you do this consistently your daughter will change the way she responds to you. She will have to change her dance steps because you are changing yours.
Give it a try!
Cody, as I said, this is simple but not easy. I know you want to stop yelling at your child who has an eating disorder, and I believe you can. I hope this has given you a good idea of a place you could begin to work on this. I know that it’s hard to change our behavior, and I also know that you are doing your very best in a very difficult situation. I wish you all the best as you try this out.
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