How to respond to bad body thoughts

How to respond to bad body thoughts

Today we’re going to hear from a parent whose child is complaining about their body, and I’ll teach you a method for how to respond to bad body thoughts. I’m going to teach you a powerful, scientifically proven technique for responding to these situations. It may surprise you, but I assure you that it can be transformative.

The letter

Dear Ginny,

My daughter finished treatment for her eating disorder a few years ago, but she is constantly complaining about her body. She asks me if she is fat and tries to show me her problem areas constantly.

I’ve tried everything. Mainly I focus on reminding her that she’s not fat, that she’s got nice long legs and beautiful hair, and that lots of other people don’t have those things.

I’m scared, because it just keeps getting worse. I’m worried the eating disorder is coming back and, truthfully, I’m very irritated with her. It’s annoying to have to constantly have the same conversation.

Do you have any advice?

Signed, Michelle

My response

Michelle, I’m so glad you reached out because I know how hard it is to respond to bad body thoughts. This is a common problem, and I do have some good ideas for you.

I want to start by saying that your irritation and annoyance make so much sense. These types of circular arguments are exhausting and often do spiral and continue to get worse. But luckily you can change the pattern by changing how you respond. 

The first thing I want you to know is that this is a pretty classic symptom of anxiety. In fact, one of the hallmarks of anxious behavior is that the person who is observing it feels irritated. 

When I hear a parent who is irritated with their child, I typically look for anxiety. 

And it’s not hard to find anxiety in someone who has a history of an eating disorder. After all, the conditions are tightly linked. 

When bad body comments are circular and escalating, we’re likely seeing a behavioral expression of anxiety. 

And anxiety is not something that we can talk our kids out of. I can hear that you’re trying to rationalize her bad body thoughts by comparing them to other people’s problems and building up what you see as positive physical traits. But the problem with this approach is that it keeps the person stuck on their body image rather than addressing the underlying anxiety that’s driving the bad body thoughts.

The lock analogy

I’d like to give you an analogy that might make this clear. 

A child becomes worried that the family isn’t safe. Every night when he goes to bed, he says I’m scared we’re not safe. The dad kindly responds “honey, we’re safe. The front door is locked.” 

But after a few nights, the boy doesn’t believe his dad. He asks repeatedly about safety and is very worried. So dad takes his son downstairs and shows him that the door is locked, demonstrating how the lock works. The son goes to bed and dad feels pretty good about how he handled the situation. 

Now the son and father go downstairs every night before bed to check the lock. But pretty soon the son starts waking up dad in the middle of the night to go downstairs and check the lock. A few nights later, the son is convinced that one lock is not enough. They are not safe.

Dad, being loving and kind, reassures his son that they are safe. And the next day he goes to the hardware store and installs a second lock on the door. 

He is doing the best he can, trying to keep his son calm.

It gets worse

It works for a few nights. At bedtime, they walk downstairs and check both locks. But pretty soon the son says that two locks can’t be enough. He says they’re not safe. He wakes dad up multiple times at night to check the door. So dad, starting to feel annoyed and sleep-deprived but not sure what else to do, gets a third lock and installs it.

Maybe you can see where this is going. 

The boy keeps worrying that the locks on the door are not enough, and dad, doing the very best he can, keeps trying to solve the anxiety by showing his son the locks and adding more locks. But every time he adds a lock, the boy’s anxiety gets bigger and bigger.

Dad is getting really irritated and feels hopelessly oppressed by the endless locks and door-checks. Neither of them is sleeping, and they are running out of room for more locks on the door. Dad keeps trying to be compassionate and understanding of his son’s fears, but the fact is that now 

But he’s also embarrassed about all the locks on the door and is increasingly angry with his son.

Can you see what happened here?

A recap

Dad did the best he could. He was kind and compassionate and responsive. But he saw the problem as the lock on the door. So he kept trying to solve the problem by showing the locks and putting more locks on the door. 

But the real problem was anxiety and fear. 

And every time he added a lock to the door, he was accidentally reinforcing the idea that worry about safety can be solved by adding a lock. This fed rather than reduced the anxiety. 

The locks became an obsession for both of them, but the locks were never the issue. Anxiety is the issue. What dad needed to do was address the anxiety his son was feeling. 

Rather than solving the problem with trips downstairs and more locks, he needed to help his son feel the terror of his fear and make it through to the other side without actually doing anything.

Those trips downstairs and new locks were an attempt to shut down the anxiety. It was a way to walk around the anxiety. But anxiety never goes away when we continually walk around it. 

Anxiety only goes away when we walk through it and realize it’s possible to do that.

Respond to bad body thoughts

So let’s get back to your daughter’s bad body thoughts. With each bad body statement, she is showing you that she is anxious. 

Just like the boy’s worries about the front door not being safe, she is worried that her body is not safe. When you talk about her positive attributes or compare her body to other bodies, it’s like walking downstairs to check the door and adding more locks to the door. Rather than address her fears about her body, you’re trying to walk around the fear. 

With her history of an eating disorder, I would schedule an appointment with a therapist to work on her body anxiety. A therapist can help her learn to respond to her own bad body thoughts when they pop up in her mind.

But you can also help a lot by showing helping her walk through her anxiety. 

Model for responding to bad body thoughts

Here’s the formula for doing this: name the experience and trust that she can tolerate it. 

1. It sounds like you’re having bad body thoughts and are having feelings (that’s naming)

2. That makes sense to me. I’ll sit here with you while you feel this (that’s showing trust).

Notice that you’re not making any reassurances – you’re not adding any locks to the door.

She will be shocked when you do this at first. Most kids will do a lot to try and get you to engage in her anxiety. She will try to get you to say the things you’ve said in the past.

And, just like that nice dad, you’ll desperately want to walk downstairs with her and add another lock. But you have to remember that even though that seems like the kindest thing to do, it feeds the anxiety. 

What she needs is for you to see her anxiety that underlies the bad body thoughts and trust that she can feel those feelings without exploding or dying or any of the other things that anxiety can feel like. 

Anxiety is physical and intense

And the only remedy for anxiety is recognizing that our thoughts and fears cannot hurt us, but not responding to our thoughts and fears directly can make them get worse.

The key is that you respond with some version of the formula I shared with you whenever she expresses her bad body thoughts. 

And you calm your own nervous system so that you are able to sit with her while she has her feelings of fear and terror. If you can, you could try to help her name the feelings that come up, like fear, jealousy, terror, horror, hate, anger, and other feelings that will likely make you very uncomfortable.

But remember that you can tolerate your own fear of her feelings. And naming feelings doesn’t make them facts. Feelings come and go. And the danger comes in ignoring feelings, not feeling them. 

When we actually allow these so-called bad feelings to exist they quickly dissipate. 

Practice not perfect

It may take a few times or even lots of times for you to practice this with her. But if you keep it up, you will start to see a reduction in her bad body talk. You will both feel better.

Michelle, like I said, your daughter would probably benefit from some therapy right now so that she can work on her anxiety with a professional. 

But your behavior around her anxiety can have a huge impact on her ability to tolerate her feelings. This is actually a scientifically proven approach to children who have anxiety. In fact, it’s been proven that when parents change their response to anxiety, children’s anxiety behaviors are reduced and even eliminated.

I know this is a big shift, so remember that you are growing and learning. I know you can do this, and wish you all the best.

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Published by Ginny Jones

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