Last updated on May 11th, 2021
This is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of 'Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well'
To hear me demonstrating some of what follows, check out the many Bitesize audios on this topic. I also occasionally run a workshop to help parents with communication.
A guide to compassionate communication, to help you guide your child through the toughest challenges and help them thrive. And because you need to be effective and powerful, and because you are a role-model for your child, I also show you how self-compassion works. If you are fearful about what to say, if your child’s emotions – and your own – are all over the place, this chapter will help you be the confident, courageous and resilient parent your child needs.
So far I’ve concentrated on practical aspects of the illness and its treatment. To be successful, we also have to regulate our emotions and speak skillfully. We know that it’s unproductive to shout or blame or criticise. We don’t want to be so fearful; we don’t want to walk on eggshells. It’s hard to be at our best, when we are anxious for our children and when they resist us with all their might. This chapter aims to make things a lot easier for you.
The tools in this chapter have allowed me to start difficult conversations with my daughter, because I had the confidence that I could steer any dialogue, however emotive, all the way to resolution and reconnection. I’m going to take you through simple principles and examples, and based on other parents’ experiences, I hope they will become easy and natural.
You and your child will feel closer, which will feel good. Also, you will be modelling how to manage one’s emotional life well, something few of us have been taught. Compassionate communication should make refeeding and exposure to fear foods a lot smoother. Dialogue doesn’t end when you get a ‘No’. Think ‘compassionate persistence’.
[Skipping some of the chapter]
‘I’m sorry, and I love you’
Our aim is to move away from pointless fights:
In the first cartoon, we first have a parent justifying themselves (‘Yes I do understand you!’), and after that it all goes pear-shaped. Connection is built in the second cartoon, following this formula: ‘I’m sorry, and I love you’. You don’t have to use those exact words. What matters is that you are in empathy with your child for their pain. You show it through your body language, your tone of voice, and your words. Your message is, ‘I am sorry that you are suffering, and I care.’ Be sincere. It will make you feel better, and it will help bring your child back to their greater self, because major needs have been met: they’ve received unconditional acceptance, they know they’ve been heard, that they matter and that they’re loved.
‘I’m sorry, and I love you’ will help you stay away from justifying, accusing or retaliating. It will also stop you from jumping too early into reassurance, solutions or requests, which as I’ll explain soon, doesn’t work well at all.
Here are some more examples, and please tweak them to suit your style, as long as you show genuine kindness and concern.
‘My tummy is sore!’ I’m so sorry my darling. I love you.
‘I hate my life!’ Oh sweetheart, I am so sorry how hard things are for you at the moment.
‘My friends think I’m weird!’ I’m sorry, honey. That sounds lonely.
‘Dad hates me!’ Gosh, it must be tough to feel that your own dad hates you. I am so sorry.
‘Piss off!’ Hey, you’re really angry! That’s not like you. What’s up?
What do you say afterwards? I will come to that. First, I want to give you a tip if you are already thinking that anything you say always makes your child worse.
Silent empathy is where you think, ‘I’m sorry, and I love you’ without saying it out loud. Sometimes our children are in such a state that even the most wonderful words irritate them. Sometimes we are in such a state that we don’t trust ourselves to open our mouth! This is where silent empathy can be magic.
With silent empathy, you do nothing, you say nothing. You just stay there, thinking kind thoughts towards your child. You wonder what’s going on for them. What are they feeling? What matters to them so much? Don’t analyse, just let your heart be open.
Your body language says, ‘You’re OK. I’m OK. We’re safe. This is all fine. I love you.’ Give a bit of eye contact to show you care, but not so much that it might be received as overpowering. If your child allows it, offer to hold their hand, offer a hug.
[There's more in the book here]
Connect before you Direct
What we’ve done so far is connection, not problem-solving. Almost everybody tends to bypass connection and jump straight to the rational, sensible stuff: seeking solutions, reassuring, giving instructions, educating. I’ll refer to all that as ‘Correcting’. You can be way more effective when you do ‘Connecting’ first. Using the same examples as above, ‘Correcting’ could look like this:
‘My tummy is sore!’ You need the food, darling. As you keep eating, your digestive system will return to normal.
‘I hate my life!’ Things will get better once you’re eating regularly and enough.
‘My friends think I’m weird!’ No they don’t! Let’s invite them over and you’ll see how much they love you.
‘Dad hates me!’ Well you called him an idiot, so it’s not surprising you’re not best of pals right now. Why don’t you send him a nice message and make peace?
‘Piss off!’ Use polite language please. Would you tell me what’s up using polite words?
The ‘Correcting’ in these examples is sensible and non-judgemental and totally appropriate. But just now it is too sensible! It’s all about reason, and in this moment, your child has little or no access to reason because their emotions are high.
So what normally works better is to ‘Connect before you Correct’. You help your child feel safe and connected, and only when their emotions have decreased do you move on to the ‘Correction’ bit.
When someone is shouting, or closed off, or putting up resistance, they’re in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, with little access to rational thought (remember our bungee-jump?). When we use a kind voice and body language, when we show interest and non-judgement, when we make them feel cared for, their nervous system gets the message that the threat is over, and they get access to their whole intelligence again.
You may like the metaphor of the elevator. The door to reason is on the ground floor. When your child has high emotion, they might be on the 10th floor! You have to get the elevator down to the ground floor in order to have a reasonable conversation.
‘Correcting’, having a reasonable conversation, guiding, problem-solving – these are very much part of our job as parents: we have wisdom, knowledge and reassurance to impart. We contain our kids, we provide structure – by giving guidance and setting limits. We just need to ‘Connect’ first. For example:
‘My friends think I’m weird!’ I’m sorry, honey. That sounds lonely. Are you having a hard time? [then eventually:] I know Andy and Becky like you a lot. I propose we invite them over for a start.
[There's more in the book here]
More tools to help you connect
So far I’ve given you two tools to connect compassionately to your child: silent empathy, and some form of ‘I’m sorry, and I love you’. That may be all you need. You’re now in a compassionate mindframe and you can make the rest up as you go along. As you may want more, I’ll now walk you through my diagram titled ‘Connect before you Correct’. I’ll offer examples of things to say and I encourage you to adapt them so they are natural to you.
[There's more in the book here]
[End of this excerpt…]
In this chapter:
- ‘I’m sorry, and I love you’
- Silent empathy
- Connect before you Direct
- Keep tracking
- Keep checking: use question marks
- Keep your ‘but’ out of it
- Open question or empathy guess?
- More tools to help you connect
- Be interested: ‘Yes!’ and repeat
- Guess deeper: feelings and needs
- Be interested: feelings
- Be interested: what are the deep needs?
- Be interested: make use of the chatterbox
- Validate feelings and needs
- And now at last, ‘Correct’!
- How to express yourself effectively
- Get compassion from others too
- When to do self-compassion
- What if the feelings are overwhelming?
- Examples of self-compassion
Where to next?
* Jump to chapter 15 on Resilience if you'd rather build up your own emotional wellbeing right now *
On a related topic:
* Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication: what is it; find courses *