Negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder

Negotiating with a child who has an eating disorder

Today I’m going to respond to a dad who is exhausted by the non-stop negotiating that happens during mealtimes with his child who has an eating disorder. I’m going to share my favorite approach to this situation, which is based on FBI hostage negotiation techniques. 

The letter

Dear Ginny,

I’m so exhausted by mealtimes. I have to negotiate every single bite. My kid literally refuses whatever I serve and then I have to convince them, bite by bite, to eat. It can take hours. I’m completely exhausted and frustrated. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I just give up. I’m sick and tired of the games. Can you help me get better at negotiating with this eating disorder?

Signed, Phil

My response

Phil, I feel your pain. I know how hard it is to face this sort of pushback every meal, and I’m so sorry that you’re going through this.

Negotiating with an eating disorder is really hard, so something I like to refer to in these situations is an FBI hostage negotiation technique that I learned from a book called Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. The reason I like this book for parents who have kids who have eating disorders is that negotiating during meals can feel as critical and difficult as a hostage negotiation.

And what I like best about this approach compared to a lot of negotiation techniques is that it’s not about finding a compromise. Because the fact is that we can’t compromise. When a child is in early recovery and on a meal plan, we need to serve them the food on their meal plan – all of it.

So how you handle this is important. Negotiating with an eating disorder is not about finding a compromise, because there is no acceptable compromise to eating.

What you’re facing is as hard as a hostage negotiation. So let’s find out how to deal with it.

1. Set your goal ahead of time

First, I want you to set your goal ahead of time. In this case, your goal is to serve the right amount and balance of food.

Now if you have an eating plan from your child’s nutritionist, this is pretty easy. That meal plan – in exact detail – is exactly what your goal is. 

Having a specific, firm goal in advance is critical. The goal of an FBI hostage negotiator is to get every person out alive. They can’t go in thinking they’re willing to sacrifice a person. They have to have a 100% success goal firmly in their mind.

So your goal is to serve the meal according to the meal plan. 100% success is that you plate and serve exactly what is planned, with no deviations. You don’t add more or less or change the plan. You take it very seriously.

Now notice that you don’t set the goal that your kid eats everything or eats without trying to negotiate. Because that’s up to them. We can’t control what our kids do – we can only control what we do.

You also keep the goal small and specific. If you set the goal that your child recovers from their eating disorder that will trip you up. That’s a long-term goal with complicated factors. Just focus on this one meal, this one moment. 

And the goal is simple: you will serve an appropriate meal.

2. Never change the goal mid-meal

Now, once you have set your goal you need to make sure that you do not change your goal mid-meal. 

So if your child says you’ve given them too much or they hate something you gave them, you can take that information in and make a note of it. You might be willing to talk about changes another time, but you limit debate during the meal and you absolutely will not change your goal mid-meal.

This is very, very important. 

Once you start debating, changing the meal, or removing items mid-meal, even a teaspoon, you are not being true to your goal. And you damage your credibility, which is the most important thing you have.  Negotiating with an eating disorder is not about finding compromise, but sticking to your goal.

3. Empathy

The next part of FBI negotiation might surprise you. FBI hostage negotiators are trained to have empathy for the people they’re negotiating with, like thieves and terrorists.

That’s right. They don’t go in looking for a fight. They go in looking to connect.

Empathy is finding a way to connect with and understand the other person’s humanity. 

This doesn’t need to be complicated. Let’s say that your child says they hate bread. Maybe you like bread, so that’s not where you’re going to find empathy. But forget the bread. I bet you can find empathy for the fact that your child doesn’t like being told what to do.

In fact, almost all of your meal pushback is going to come back to this point of empathy: it sucks to have a parent plate your food and dictate what and how much you eat.

This is key: empathy is not the same as changing your goal. 

Just because you have empathy for your child doesn’t mean that you change the fact that you’re pursuing your goal of serving a meal. Empathy doesn’t mean you change your behavior, but it does mean you understand and can feel for your kid. 

When we have empathy, our kids feel seen and understood. 

And believe it or not, this makes a huge difference.

As a side note: empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is when we feel pity or feel sorry for someone. That’s typically experienced as being condescending. So don’t do that. Go with empathy, which is feeling something with someone else. Understanding their position and relating to it is powerful.

4. Active listening

Now you’ve got your goal and know that you will not change the goal mid-meal. And you’re feeling empathy for your child. Next, we’re going to talk about what you actually say during a meal.

Because everything up until this point is actually about what happens inside of you. The first three steps are about what you believe and think – your stance. You don’t have to tell your child the goal, that you won’t negotiate mid-meal, or that you have empathy for them. Sometimes saying those things might make sense, but they are not critical to your success.

Instead, you need to work on active listening. The simplest way to do this is by listening carefully to what your child says and mirroring it back to them so they feel heard and understood.

I’ll walk through a few examples to show you what this looks like.

Your child says: I hate bread, why do you keep serving it to me?

  • You say: you hate bread
  • They say: yes! And you know that
  • You say: I know that
  • They say: and I know you’re forcing me to eat bread because my dietitian said I have to
  • You say: your dietitian put it on your meal plan
  • They say: that sucks
  • You say: that sucks

This approach may feel a bit awkward at first, but it works amazingly well. What’s happening here is that you are mirroring back what your child says – typically by repeating the last three words – and leaving the conversation up to them. You’re not engaging in a debate.

When we debate with our kids, we force them to defend their position. 

When we use mirroring, we force them to process their feelings by themselves.

Here’s another example:

  • Your child says: you gave me too much milk
  • You say: I gave you too much milk
  • They say: yes! I can tell that there is extra milk in here – it’s way more than one cup
  • You say: it’s more than one cup
  • They say: yeah!
  • You say: OK
  • They say: you need to give me just one cup next time
  • You say: OK

5. Hold the line

Now that’s a great outcome, but let’s imagine that your child is pushing you to remove the extra milk from their glass. Now we need to go beyond active listening and move into holding the line.

Let’s continue this conversation with that in mind. Your child said you gave them too much milk. 

You use active listening to keep the conversation flowing without debating, but now it’s gotten to the point at which they say “You need to remove the extra milk from my glass.”

Now remember that you have decided your goal in advance, and you know you will not change your goal mid-game. I’m serious. Even if you agree that maybe there is an extra tablespoon of milk in their glass, you must not ever pour it out. I can’t state this clearly enough. You must never change the goal mid-meal.

So here’s how this might go.

  • Your child says: you need to re-measure this glass
  • You say: you want me to re-measure the glass
  • They say: yes, re-measure it and pour out the extra milk

Here you can use some empathy by identifying the fear that you think underlies the complaint.

  • You say: It sounds like you think I was sloppy with my measuring tonight
  • They say: yes
  • You say: I can understand that you’re afraid I won’t measure carefully. I promise to measure carefully. 
  • They say: but it’s not fair that I have to drink this much
  • You say: that may be true, and I’m sorry you’re upset. I promise to keep being careful when I measure.
  • They say: but it’s not fair – I shouldn’t have to drink it
  • You say: that may be so, but right now that is what’s in front of you

A few things are happening here. First, you’re being very careful not to tell your child what they need to do. You’re actually focusing on the only thing within your control, which is your behavior. And your behavior is about sticking to your goal and not deviating mid-meal. 

Next, you’re not taking your child’s pushback personally, nor are you engaging in it or getting into an argumentative loop. You are not negotiating with the eating disorder; you are holding the line.

Sometimes we feel attacked when a child thinks we’ve given them too much. But instead, we can just calmly state that we take it seriously and will continue to take it seriously.

The main point here is that in this example there is no negotiation. We’re not engaging in debate, but we are using empathy and active listening. We’re focusing on what we can do, and who we are, not on what our child wants us to do or what our child says or does.

As you’ve already seen, negotiating doesn’t work and is exhausting. Instead, we need to set our boundaries and hold them firm, regardless of what our child does.

All 5 steps are essential at every meal

Phil, I know this sounds simple, but it’s not easy. You may have already tried some or all of these approaches in the past. The important thing is that you must use them all at every meal to see results.

Thank you for all the effort you’ve put into this so far, and I hope you’ll give this complete technique a try and that it’s helpful as you keep moving forward.

You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.

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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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