Last updated on June 21st, 2020
This is a section from Chapter 7 of 'Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well'.
Note that I outline key points in my free helpsheets and on my page: 'How can I get my child to eat'.
You can also hear me explain and demonstrate tips in my Bitesize audios.
For some parents, a few tips are all that's needed. For others it's really useful to read or listen to a lot more around the whole subject (hence my book and my Bitesize audios), because so many things impact your child's ability to eat.
It can seem impossible to get your son or daughter to eat when they're suffering from anorexia or another restrictive eating disorder. Yet refeeding is essential in the early days of treatment. In this chapter I give you all the tips I’ve learned from experience, from our therapists and from other parents. I’ll use a bungee-jumping analogy to illustrate the principles. Later, I’ll offer some examples using practical scenarios of refeeding and of exposure to scary (fear) foods.
In the early days, most of us find it impossible to get our children to eat. We desperately hunt for treatment, and when we find it we’re brought round full circle: we, the parents, are the people at the centre of our child’s recovery. We need to learn how to get our kids to eat.
The tools I’m about to offer you got my child from eating practically nothing, to eating what she needed. They saw her through a whole list of foods she couldn’t previously eat, and freed her up to enjoy other people’s cooking and meals in cafés. These tools deal with fear and irrationality, so they’re relevant to many of the challenges of anorexia and related eating disorders, including the drive to exercise or to engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
Some of what I suggest may not be for you, and that’s fine. We’re all different. Different situations, different resources.
And now, prepare yourself. I’m going to invite you on a bungee jump. I hope you are suitably terrified!
Actually I have no intention of raising your stress levels and I’m going to take very good care of you. The aim of this thought experiment is to help you empathise with your child, so that when you’re in the middle of a meal the tools come to you instinctively and you don’t have to go and consult a book.
The great bungee-jump thought experiment
Your child’s resistance is driven by fear
One day I realised that just about every mealtime obstacle my daughter threw at us was driven by fear. This changed everything. Her behaviour might have looked like contempt, or stupidity, or rudeness, or defiance, but the eating-disorders specialist coaching us suggested that the underlying emotion was fear.
“Before, we knew she was having rages and tantrums, however, on the multi-family therapy week we have all learned together that it is fear and anxiety.”
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Logic doesn’t work
I do hope my friend won’t try logic to get me to jump. I can’t think of anything more stressful than having a geek rabbiting on about Hooke’s law, while I’m staring down into the abyss. Is that Young’s modulus he’s talking about now? He is seriously getting on my nerves. All I can think is, ‘I cannot take that leap. It’s too hard.’ My friend says, ‘But the elastic cord will hold you. Remember when we did Newton’s laws in school?’ I don’t like the look of the rope. It looks frayed. Yes, I’m sure it’s frayed. And it looks too long. I’m going to crash headfirst into the riverbed. My friend is getting impatient. I play for time by starting an in-depth argument about the elastic’s tensile properties. My friend gets annoyed that I am so dense about the laws of physics, which gives me a good excuse to let off steam and scream at him. I am glad to note that while we argue, he’s not making me jump. I simply cannot jump.
When we are scared (and our children are scared at each meal), our brain cannot engage with intellect or aspirations. We are thrown in a state of fight, flight or freeze, which prioritises safety (see my short YouTube video on this subject.)
I still squirm when I recall that I once produced a colourful chart to show my daughter the humongous number of chocolate éclairs needed to gain just half a kilo. She looked at them and nodded wisely. Then she refused the next meal.
Parents quickly discover that rational talk at mealtimes doesn’t work. In Chapter 8 I’ll show you how to avoid discussing calories, quantities and metabolism. Logic may have been a good-enough tool in your toolbox for ordinary life, but with any situation where emotions run high, it’s as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.
[End of extract from the chapter]
In this chapter:
- The great bungee-jump thought experiment
- Planning the challenge
- Logic doesn’t work
- Education: the dinner table is not a lecture hall
- Eating prompts work best
- Conversation topics: pick with care
- Distraction: a firm favourite
- Reassurance: suprisingly not reassuring
- * Pause for self-connection *
- Trust me, I’m an expert
- Shock tactics: short-lived gains, high costs
- Shouting, intimidating, blaming: counterproductive
- Threats, punishment, and ‘consequences’: unnecessary
- Rewards and bribes: handle with care
- Incentives: a nudge in the right direction
- Visualisation: access to inner resources
- Praise: complex and risky
- ‘It’s your medicine’: worth a go
- Damage limitation: blame something other than your kid
- Teamwork: have a break, make a graceful exit
- Containment: stay close
- Humour: the best relaxant
- Feelings: a good start
- Empathy: powerful when focused on the task
- * Pause for self-connection *
- Selective hearing, body-swerving and translation skills
- Mirroring: model calm confidence
- Defusing fear: remove the fear of fear
- Notice indicators of progress
- Wait a few minutes
- How long should you persist?
- Focus on the current step in the present moment
- Let your kid save face and maintain some dignity
- All singing from the same hymn sheet
- Giving uncritical acceptance
- Putting it all together
* How can I get my child to eat? A short piece with key tips*
* Lisa's Tarzan leap for her daughter: facing anorexia fear. A mother's story to help you empathise. *