Tips for Parents of Adolescents with Eating Disorders

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Assertive Family Communication: Tips for Parents of Adolescents with Eating Disorders

Adolescents with eating disorders often have difficulty expressing emotions of sadness, anger, and guilt. The result is that they hold in or “bottle up” these emotions. Bottling up emotions makes a person feel sad and alone. It can lead to a loss of awareness of one’s emotions and a frequent failure to express one’s needs.

One of the most important ways in which parents can help adolescents break through this pattern is to communicate assertively with them. The goal of assertive communication is to express emotions and needs in a calm, nonthreatening manner. Learning to communicate assertively can feel scary and awkward for both parents and adolescents. But it really helps.

Parents can help their adolescents by working on improving their own communication skills. This includes listening as well as speaking. It is vital for family members to understand that listening is just as important as speaking. Remembering the following points can help parents communicate more effectively with their adolescents.

Speaking Skills

  • Watch your body language. Make eye contact, face the listener, and speak slowly, calmly, and clearly.
  • Make “I” statements: “I feel (emotion/feeling) when (situation); I need (change/goal).” For example, ” I feel scared when I think you might not be eating your lunch at school. I need you to let me know, so we can talk about it and do something to get you help if you need it.”
  • Empower with reality: “My experience has been ______.” This takes the place of the stereotypical parental line, “Because I said so.”
  • Make statements about behaviors and actions, not the total person.This creates less blame and reduces the likelihood of a defensive reaction. Saying “Coming home late was irresponsible” sounds much better than saying,“You are so irresponsible.”
  • Anchor the discussion. Stay on the most important topic and focus on one issue at a time.
  • Offer choices. Compromise when appropriate and keep an open mind.
  • Learn to say no when you need to set limits.
  • Summarize your main point.

Listening Skills

  • Give you full attention: Establish eye contact and face the speaker.
  • Paraphrase and validate the adolescent’s feelings. “What I am hearing you say is that you are really sad.”
  • Check it out. Clarify what you heard by asking questions: “How long have you felt that way?”
  • Seek further information in order to understand the adolescent’s point of view. “Do you want to tell me more about that?”
  • Summarize your understanding of the information given.
  • Offer feedback but try not to take a “fix it” approach. It is all right to ask,“What do you need from me? Would you like me to just listen, or is there something you need me to do?”
  • Provide caring responses. “I hear you saying this is important to you, so that makes it important to me.”
  • Actively listen. Pay close attention and do not think of a response until the speaker is finished talking. Take notes if you need to.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Consider the point of view of the speaker.
  • Do not judge. Remember that no feeling is bad in and of itself. However, we can improve the ways in which we behave and communicate when we have feelings.

Using these skills may help you and your adolescent develop healthier communication. It can also help you get to know each other better, which is rewarding for both of you. Improving communication with adolescents who have eating disorders may be as simple as taking some of the pressure off. It may help to play a game, go to a movie together, or spend time together in an activity you both enjoy. Activities that parents and adolescents make time to do together can ease tension and build trust, making communication more comfortable. They can also be a lot of fun.

A family therapist may be able to help you with these speaking and listening skills, or provide additional guidance if you and your adolescent are still struggling even after you have tried using these skills. A family therapist can help by working with your family to identify underlying barriers to healthy communication and offering communication tools to help the whole family communicate better.

By Mae Sokol, MD & Christina Powell, MSW, PLMHP
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2004 Volume 2, Number 4
©2004 Gürze Books

About the Authors

Mae Sokol, MD, is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. Christina Powell, MSW, PLMHP, is a family and individual therapist and social worker. Both work in the Creighton University Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders Program in Omaha, Nebraska.

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