Teen Power Struggles and Eating Disorders

scheel5The teenage years typically bring on feelings of separation and autonomy, often leading to a power struggle between a teen and his or her parents. Keeping an open line of communication between parents and teens is difficult, but integral to their development and growth. Power struggles, however, can be especially difficult—and frightening—for families who have a teenager suffering from an eating disorder.

There are many reasons why an eating disorder develops in teenagers. One of which is that eating disorders serve as a way to express feelings and behaviors that can’t necessarily be verbalized. Internally handling issues and problems a teen is facing is quite common, yet when teens express these issues through the language of an eating disorder, it can become a very unhealthy and self-destructive form of communication.

Yet in truth, most people with eating disorders have a difficult time experiencing and expressing emotions. Symptoms are a behavioral way to express what cannot, or is not, being expressed emotionally. So, a typical child who is angry at a parent may slam their door, sulk, avoid contact, or not follow through on household chores. A child with an eating disorder might choose to not eat or vomit.

It is easier to have consequences for the power struggle that ensues when a child won’t take out the garbage; but it is painfully sensitive and scary to have consequences for the child who chooses not to eat as a way to express their dissatisfaction or wish for autonomy.

Either way, my advice for families is the same. Helping a teen find an emotional—not a behavioral—voice is key in dismantling power struggles. For families who have a child with an eating disorder, this is paramount. Words need to replace destructive or life-threatening behaviors. Here are things to consider for families struggling with their child’s eating disorder:

  • Separation and autonomy are inevitable and necessary tasks of adolescence. Supporting healthy separation of a child with an eating disorder is a key in recovery.
  • Children with an eating disorder have an increased difficulty in working out these tasks and expressing their feelings, especially anger. Understand that their eating disorder is not a willful act, but one of helplessness and pain. Their attempt is ultimately not to thwart you, but to hurt themselves.
  • Teens with an eating disorder need your voice of understanding, sensible limit setting and compromise. Talking about what they are—or are not—eating is typically not helpful and often provokes the power struggle. Point out when you see your child using their symptoms as a weapon, and ask whether they can share in words what they are feeling.
  • A parent’s anxiety is likely to be understandably escalated during the course of their child’s illness. Keeping your anxiety in check will help with rational thinking in your responses, particularly when your child’s behavior is provocative and scary.

Most importantly, seek the help of professionals. Solid family therapy can teach all members how to understand and interpret power struggles and how to dismantle them so that eating disorder behaviors are replaced by communication and appropriate teenage rebelliousness.

NOTE: This post was originally published at MomItForward.com on January 4, 2012: http://momitforward.com/teenagers-information-for-families-struggling-with-a-childs-eating-disorder

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