Today we’re going to hear from a dad struggling with arguments, both about eating disorder behaviors and almost everything else. As most of us know, arguments with teenagers are frustrating and often counterproductive. So what to do instead? Let’s dive in.
My teenager has an eating disorder. It’s been a few years of stressful meals and endless arguments. I expected the arguments about body image and eating. I’m surprised but also understand the arguments about whether my teen even has an eating disorder. I believe they do, and their treatment providers agree, but my teen says they are fine.
But what’s pushing me over the edge is that on top of that we argue about literally everything. Nothing is ever easy. From loading the dishwasher to curfew, everything is a struggle. I know they’re a teenager, so some of this is to be expected, but how are we supposed to deal with this?
Personally, I tend to blow up when it gets too bad, and I know that’s not productive. My partner, on the other hand, can spend hours trying to convince our teen to eat another bite or fold their laundry.
Something’s off, but we just don’t know what’s normal, what’s not normal, and what to do about it all.
Hi Scott, I’m so sorry to hear this, and I know how you feel.
Arguments with a teenager who has an eating disorder are exhausting, and they’re rarely limited to eating disorder issues. Most of the time a teen who argues about food, eating, weight, and their eating disorder diagnosis is also arguing about other things.
This can make life very unpleasant for everyone. Also, as you point out, having arguments with your teen about their eating disorder or anything else isn’t reducing the number of arguments you’re having in your household. In fact, it’s quite possible that the way you and your partner are arguing with your child is increasing the number of arguments.
This is a total bummer, but not uncommon at all!
Big bold statements
Most of us learned that when we want someone to do something or stop doing something, we should use rational arguments to get them to change their beliefs and behaviors. But as you’ve probably noticed, arguing with someone who has an eating disorder is at best fruitless and at worst dangerous. It can actually make things worse.
When your child has an eating disorder, they may make big, bold statements like:
- I can’t eat
- I’m too full
- My body is hideous
- I would be happier if I lost weight
- I eat too much
- I do not have an eating disorder
- I’m healthy
- You don’t know what you’re talking about
Hearing your teen say things like this that are 1) clearly wrong, and 2) obviously driven by the eating disorder, is painful. Most parents want to jump in and correct their teen as quickly as possible.
This inevitably leads to arguments. Here’s what this usually looks like:
Child: “My body is disgusting and I have to lose weight.”
Parent: “No, your body is perfect. In fact, you’re too thin! You have to gain weight!”
Child: “I can’t eat, I’m full.”
Parent: “You have to eat. You didn’t eat lunch. I know you must be hungry.”
At this point, you’re off to the races! You argue back and forth with your child, trying desperately to convince them that they are wrong and you are right.
It doesn’t work
But this will never work. In fact, having arguments with someone about their eating disorder beliefs and behaviors can make them dig their heels in and make things worse, not better. You can accidentally entrench the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors further when you try to argue them away.
This is because when we argue with our kids, particularly teenagers, we’re giving them a platform on which they can strengthen their own beliefs. We think that arguing and providing another perspective will change their perspective, but in fact it just gives them a chance to demonstrate their ability to differentiate from us and prove they are smart individuals who know more than us.
This is just how the teenage brain works. I promise that your child most likely does this in many different settings, but as their parents, you are uniquely situated to provide them with the ideal sparring partner.
Try validating instead
That’s why it’s important to move from trying to convince and argue with your teenager to validating and giving your teen the space to think about their own opinions rather than forcing them to defend their opinions.
This feels counterintuitive for most parents because most of us were raised to present our facts clearly and precisely when negotiating and make demands about what we want. But as you’re seeing, this approach simply doesn’t work when we have teens.
Arguing and negotiating with teens is exhausting. It’s an exercise in futility. But, worst of all, when you’re dealing with an eating disorder, arguing and negotiating is dangerous because it can entrench the beliefs that are driving the disordered behaviors.
A new way
So what can you do instead? Well, here’s a new way of responding to your teenager:
Child: “My body is disgusting, and I have to lose weight.”
Parent: “It sounds like you are feeling really bad about your body right now. That’s so hard. I’m sorry.”
Child: “I can’t eat. I’m full.”
Parent: “It sounds like you’re uncomfortable about eating right now, and I get that, but I know you can handle this meal.”
What you’re doing here is validating your child’s feelings, not arguing the “facts” of their distorted beliefs. And while it may seem to you that this will make things worse, it won’t.
The No.1 thing all children crave most from their parents is to feel understood. And no child has ever felt understood when their parent tries to convince them what they think and believe is wrong.
Arguing damages the relationship
Arguing damages our relationship with our children, but that’s not even the worst part! It is exhausting for both sides, but that’s not the worst. The worst part is that it’s ineffective at making the other person change, and a lot of times, it makes things worse.
When you argue the “facts” and the “truth,” a conversation about eating disorder beliefs can go on indefinitely. But if you validate their feelings, there’s not much else to say.
In this approach, you mirror and summarize their words with empathy and compassion. You’re not agreeing that what they say is true, but you are showing that you hear them and making sure they “feel felt.”
Believe it or not, I learned this proven technique, not in my training as a parent coach but when I was a high-level business consultant tasked with negotiating multi-million-dollar deals and persuading people to invest in my clients’ businesses and products.
Validating emotions is a negotiating technique that I learned – I kid you not – from the FBI and Harvard Business School.
When I suggest that instead of arguing, you empathize with and validate your child’s feelings, I’m giving you a hard-core negotiation tactic, not just a way to be nice.
It works when the FBI needs to save hostages’ lives, when there’s a multi-million dollar business deal on the line, or when the teenager sitting in front of you is refusing to do something.
It works in all these cases because it acknowledges the deepest wish of every single human: to be heard and understood.
The trickiest thing
Does it seem impossible to stop arguing with your teenager about their eating disorder and a million other things? Yes. This is one of the trickiest aspects of parenting with an eating disorder.
But, as you know, arguing with teens creates a negative emotional environment in the house. When we’re arguing about homework, dishes, and laundry, we aren’t able to connect with our kids and build the belonging that is essential to eating disorder recovery.
And just like arguments about eating disorder behaviors, arguments about household tasks and schoolwork can be dealt with completely differently.
Instead of this conversation:
Child: School is stupid. When will I ever need to know algebra in the real world?
Parent: Well now, algebra is actually very useful, and I use it every day. And school isn’t stupid. It’s important. You have to get good grades to get into a good college.
Try this one instead:
Child: School is stupid. When am I ever going to need to know algebra in the real world?
Parent: It sounds like you’re frustrated with algebra right now. That makes sense – I know a lot of people feel that way.
This magical response allows your teenager to have an opinion while supporting their understandable feelings of frustration.
Who hasn’t been frustrated with algebra?
Set boundaries in advance
And this doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries and expectations. You can and you should. But arguing is not the way to set them. Set your boundaries and expectations ahead of time.
Trust me. Your teen hears you when you set boundaries and expectations. And if there are consequences for not meeting them, tell your child ahead of time, and follow through when it inevitably happens.
But don’t argue about it or negotiate or try to get your teen to agree with you that your boundary is reasonable or your consequence makes sense. Arguments don’t work, and they often make things worse.
When your teenager has feelings about your boundaries and expectations, let them have their feelings. It’s OK!
Avoid trying to convince them to change their feelings
Most of us are so desperate to keep our kids happy and healthy that we accidentally don’t give them the one thing they want from us most of all: acceptance and understanding.
What our kids want most from us is to accept them as they are and understand that they are doing the best they can.
When we argue and debate with teens, we show them that we don’t accept or understand them. We tell them they should be doing better and follow our advice rather than letting them learn important things for themselves.
Scott, I hope this has given you some ideas for reducing the arguments in your household. This is a huge shift for many of us, but I promise it can make a massive difference in our teens’ behavior and strongly supports eating disorder recovery. I hope you’ll give it a try!
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