How to handle guilt when your child has an eating disorder

How to handle guilt when your child has an eating disorder

There are many reasons parents feel guilt when their child has an eating disorder. The biggest one is that our society blames parents for kids’ behavior even though kids have their own unique biology, psychology, and social experience. Parents are just one part of the complex puzzle of child behavior. And yet, when something goes wrong, parents are the first to blame.

This is absolutely wrong and unhelpful. Parents are incredibly helpful in recovery from an eating disorder, and working with them rather than shutting them out can make all the difference. 

Why do parents feel guilty?

Guilt is an emotion. Just like fear, anger, and sadness, it’s an emotion that exists in nature as a guide and signal. All emotions have a reason and serve a purpose. 

For example, fear is a signal that tells us to scan the environment and identify whether our life is in danger. If we’re in danger, we need to act fast – that’s why it’s such an intense and activating emotion. But most of the time in modern life we’re not actually in mortal danger. 

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When fear shows up in our mostly safe lives, we should take a few minutes to observe the environment, identify whether there is a risk, and, if so, do something fast. If not, we should process the fear and move on. The fear served its purpose and now it can pass. But many of us get stuck in fear and find it hard to move on. In these cases, the natural emotion of fear becomes anxiety, which negatively impacts our ability to function.

The purpose of parental guilt is similar. It asks us to consider whether there is something we have done that doesn’t live up to our expectations of ourselves as parents. Guilt asks us to think about whether we’re acting in line with our values. It tells us that we really care! When used effectively, guilt can motivate us to take meaningful action and make a difference.

When parental guilt gets in the way

Parental guilt makes sense for any parent who has a child with an eating disorder. Of course it will show up! But feeling guilty doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. It’s just a signal to observe what’s going on and make active choices that align with your values. 

Just like fear, guilt serves a purpose. But when we get stuck in guilt, we enter a cycle of self-recrimination, which makes it harder to act in alignment with our values.

Remember, fear is natural, but anxiety is when we get stuck in fear. Similarly, guilt is natural, but self-recrimination is when we get stuck in guilt. In both cases, something that is natural and healthy in the short term becomes toxic when it’s stuck.

Guilt is not the problem: it’s just a signal. The problem is that when we get stuck in guilt, it keeps us from taking meaningful action.

How to handle guilty feelings

Parental guilt is completely normal, and you can use it to your advantage when your child has an eating disorder. To stay on the positive side of guilt, follow these steps: 

1. Notice that you’re feeling guilty

You can’t help yourself out of guilt if you don’t see it coming. Most of us are disconnected from our emotional signals. We try to avoid them and get stuck in unhelpful loops as a result. To change this pattern, you can build a mindful practice of paying attention to your feelings of guilt. Notice it when guilt shows up and intentionally set aside a few minutes to process it right away whenever possible. The longer you push it down, the more it will linger, and the more likely you are to get stuck in it.

Fully processing an emotion may take up to 15 minutes when you first start doing it, but with practice it takes about 30-90 seconds, even for massive, overwhelming emotions.

2. Write down what guilt is telling you

Guilt is a message from your body to your mind to pay attention. So take a deep breath and listen carefully. What is your guilt telling you? Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. Write “guilty thoughts” at the top of the left side of the paper. Now write down the guilty thoughts you’re having. Write down short statements that come to your mind when you feel guilty. For example, “It’s all my fault,” “I’m a bad mother,” and “It’s because I _____.” Writing long paragraphs will take you into unhelpful rumination, so keep it short and simple; a few words will do.

3. Process your guilt

Label the right side of the paper “process.” Now look at your guilty thoughts and consider what they are trying to tell you. Respond to your guilty thoughts with acceptance, love, and compassion. For example, “I feel guilty right now. That’s normal and natural. I feel guilty because my kid’s health means so much to me and I want to be the best parent I can be. Guilt is a signal that reminds me how much my child matters to me and I want to do my best. Guilt is a sign of love, not a sign of failure.

4. Make a list of actions you can take

Now turn the piece of paper over and see if there are any actions you want to take based on this exercise. Remember: guilt is a signal to slow down and observe what’s going on. Sometimes it has helpful messages for us, but we have to get past the hot emotion of guilt to find them. For example, maybe you feel a deep desire to help. Actions might include doing some research, making an appointment with your child’s care team to find out what they suggest, and/or working with a therapist or coach who can help you get clear about your role in recovery.

Emotions like guilt show up to help us pay attention and make meaningful changes. Guilt does not mean you have done something wrong, just that you care! We can get stuck in guilt and self-recrimination. But when we use guilt as a signal, we can take meaningful action to support a child with an eating disorder.

Parent support for turning guilt into action

Let me know if you’d like to schedule a coaching session to discuss how you can support your child who has an eating disorder.

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Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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