Step 4 is all about teaching your children how to feel and deal with their emotions as a part of  caring for their whole-selves.  Whole-self care is about taking care of your mental health in addition to your physical health. This task will be part of your child's responsibility as they head into adulthood. 

Most people are surprised to learn that eating disorders -- which are mental UN-health -- are actually not about food so much. Psychologists tell us they are emotional problems where food is used unconsciously to try to help cope with problems in living. 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 their emotional life. So how do we teach kids not to use food for distracting from or coping with their emotions? Step 4 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.

CommCableTheirEstablish communication cable
The precursor 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. You can do this 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 ourselves.  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 them what they’re feeling. You want them to be able notice and label emotions real time. Often a child doesn’t really know what is bothering them until they’re asked. If they don’t have words to name the emotion, give them a couple options, "Are you sad? frustrated?" This is how they learn to give a name to their experience and are able to identify the emotion when it happens. This also give them the ability to communicate around their experience if they are writing about it in a journal or discussing it with you.

2.    Feel the emotion and breathe
Ask them where in their body they feel it? Do they have a lump in their throat or butterflies in their stomach? By putting the focus on their body and not their mind, they’ll realize that they 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 them to take a deep breath while they are feeling it in their body. Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach would have them think about the part of the body where they are feeling the emotion when they are taking a breath. That breath could be enough to calm down their mind and make the physical feeling lessen. 

Noticing where in the body the emotion is located and picturing that location while breathing, is especially useful for kids who feel lots and lots of emotionsduring their day.  The emotion itself only last for 30-90 seconds. If you can catch the emotion at its beginning before your 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 your child that they have the power to address problems in their life; this is dealing with the problem. For this discussion, let’s say your middle-schooler is upset and tells you that a friend at lunch told them not to sit with the group. You can say empathetically, “That stinks, how did you feel?” and if they aren't able to name the emotion they are feeling, you might suggest, “I think I would have felt sad in that situation, is that it?” Let them agree or disagree with your description. 

It’s important to allow them 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 them from what they are feeling by suggesting they 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 they have sat with the emotion, felt it, and breathed into it, it will pass or at least lighten. You are now at the stage where you could brainstorm solutions, “What could you say to the group that left you out?  What could you do?” This is the dealing part of feeling and dealing with emotions.  Let them come up with suggestions for what would be possible for them to do. If they can’t do come up with ideas, offer some suggestions that they can reject or accept – it needs to make sense to them, not just to you. “Could you text the friend that was excluding you and ask them what’s up?”  “Could you sit with another group?”

4.    Role play solutions
The last step is the execution strategy -- help them role play conversations.  As parents we often want to fix a problem for our kids.  The solution must be acceptable to them and possible for them to execute. It’s not about how youwould 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 they know how to process emotions, they won’t need to go to food (or drugs or alcohol) to soothe them. They now believe that problems in living are solvable.  And, even better, they are confident that they are capable of handling them. And, with that communication cable in place, they’ll realize that you are always on their team to help them 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.
  • Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
  • Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
  • Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (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 Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.