Step 4 is all about teaching your children how to feel and deal with their emotions as a part of whole-self care. Whole-self care is about taking care of your mental health in addition to your physical health. This task will be part of your children's responsibility as they becomes adults.
Most people are surprised to learn that eating disorders -- which are mental un-health -- are actually not about food so much. Psychologists tell us eating disorders and disordered eating are emotional problems. There are hundreds of ways to get to the place where the focus on one’s eating is being used to distract a person from feeling and dealing with emotions.
So how do we teach kids not to use food for distracting from or coping with their emotional life? This is about teaching them identify and manage their emotions. You can teach them that emotions, even big ones, aren’t as scary as they seem. They’re a normal part of being human.
Establish communication cable
The first step to teaching feeing and dealing with emotions is to create a stage for discussion. Your task is to find out what is going on in your child’s emotional world by creating a communication cable between the two of you as a vital connection. Many parents in our day didn’t establish this connection, which kept many of us from actually being aware of what we were feeling. If no one ever directs your attention inside, you might never become familiar with this part of yourself. It’s like a language you never learn to speak because no one speaks it with you.
Feeling and dealing with emotions
- 1. Label the emotion
The first step in teaching feeling and dealing is to simply to notice what is being felt. When your child looks upset, ask her what she’s feeling. You want her to notice and label emotions real time. Often a child doesn’t really know what is bothering her until she’s asked. If she doesn’t have words to name the emotion, give her a couple options, "Are you sad? frustrated?"
- 2. Feel the emotion and breathe
Ask her where in her body she feels it? Does she have a lump in her throat or butterflies in her stomach? By putting the focus on her body and not her mind, she’ll realize that she can actually tolerate some uncomfortable feelings. Negative feelings are normal part of life. You don’t necessarily need to push them away or use the pleasure of food to balance that hurt.
Ask her to take a deep breath while she is feeling it in her body. Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach would have her direct her breath to the part of the body where she is feeling the emotion. That breath could be enough to calm down her mind and make the physical feeling lessen or disappear. Noticing where in the body the emotion is located and breathing there, is especially useful for kids who feel lots and lots of emotions all day. Emotions themselves only last for 30-90 seconds. If you can catch the emotion at the beginning before the child has a chance to layer more emotion, like fear or anger, onto the first emotion, the reaction will be less intense.
For those bigger more intense emotions, you can help show her that she has the power to address problems in her life, this is dealing with the problem, in #3 and #4 below. For this discussion, let’s say your middle-schooler tells you that a friend at lunch told her not to sit with the group. You can say empathetically, “That stinks, how did you feel? I think I would have felt sad in that situation, is that it?”
It’s important to allow her to have the full range of human emotion even the negative ones like anger, jealousy, and fear. And, it’s important not to try to distract her from what she is feeling by suggesting she feel something positive. Making room for negative emotions is a gift many of us didn’t get. How many of you had parents who said, “Don’t cry,” or “Don’t be angry”? You really can’t help your emotions, they just appear.
- 3. Brainstorm options
Once she has sat with the emotion and felt it and breathed into it, it will pass or at least lighten. You are now at the stage where you can could brainstorm solutions, “What could you say to the girl that left you out? What could you do?” This is the dealing part of feeling and dealing with emotions. Let her come up with suggestions for what would be possible for her. If she can’t do that, offer some suggestions that she can reject or accept – it needs to make sense to her, not just to you. “Could you text the girl that was excluding you and ask her what’s up?” “Could you sit with another group?”
- 4. Role play solutions
The last step is the execution strategy -- help her role play conversations. As parents we always want to fix a problem for our kids. The solution must be acceptable to her and possible for her to execute. It’s not about how you would handle it. This is how our kids learn communication skills and how to stick up for themselves.
The feeling and dealing basics are a huge gift for your child later in life. If she knows how to process emotions, she will not need to go to food (or drugs or alcohol) to soothe them. She now believes that problems are solvable. And, even better, she’s confident that she’s capable of handling them. And, with that communication cable in place, she’ll realize that you are always on her team to help her in a tough spot.
People who are able to feel and deal with their emotions don’t have eating disorders.
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Paul Campos, The Diet Myth, 2005.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder Workbook, 2017.
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, 2012 (3rd edition). I boil down some of the essence of this book to 8 steps in MyBodyMySelf Post-its.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.
Favorite Podcast: Cristy Harrison's FoodPscyhe.
Favorite Blogger: Isabel Foxen Duke, Stop Fighting Food. If you are interested, google Isabel on YouTube; she does lots of interviews with host of different podcasts.