Understanding and Responding to Your Youngster’s Fear: A Metaphor
I often explain to parents that for a youngster suffering from an eating disorder, a meal can feel dangerous – like jumping out of an airplane. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to (almost) live out this metaphor on a family vacation. This experience led me to reflect on the experience of both the teen and their support team:
Recently our family went zip-lining for the first time. I was terrified. But as I was zip-lining, I paid close attention to how I felt and behaved and what helped me get through the experience.
Despite the excitement I had felt when we initially planned the activity, when I saw the length and height of the zip-lines, I had misgivings. I imagined that this is how many of my patients must feel before many meals. Imagine, though, that they face this fear up to six times daily!
During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. Even though once I was on the zip-line I was alone, rushing through the air at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, so fast my eyelashes were blowing into my eyes – somehow taking the plunge in this order made me feel like I was snugly nestled between them.
The calm and assurance of the line attendants was comforting. They knew what they were doing. At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to tell the attendant that secured or unstrapped me exactly how terrified I was. I was relieved when they joked and told me they knew I would be fine. I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me and that we were doing it together made this fear something I wasn’t facing alone.
So, how does this apply to supporting a young person with an eating disorder?
Physical Placement of Support
During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. One of the basic premises of FBT is that the support of the family during mealtimes provides a supportive environment for recovery. Parents often find that sitting at the table on either side of their adolescent during mealtimes provides additional structure and support. It is an act of love to support a child through a meal when they are terrified.
If the zip-line attendants had expressed hesitation or anxiety about what they were doing I probably would have refused to go. Calm and confident parents inspire trust in their children, making it easier for them to eat. Sometimes parents have to fake it until they do feel confident.
At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to recount my terror to the attendant that secured or unstrapped me. I didn’t need to hear any response in particular. It just relieved me to express how scared I was and to know that the attendants heard me. When parents hear their child say he or she doesn’t want to eat, it is more helpful to simply hear it and stay calm than it is to get upset and try to argue or reason.
If the zip-line attendants had tried to reassure me by giving me detailed factual information about the strength of the lines and so on, my attempts to parse this information in my state of anxious activation might have only increased my anxiety. Parents can empathize with the fear and express confidence that their adolescent will be okay. “I know you are scared. I know you can do this.” Parents know their youngster and know whether joking will work. It is usually best to avoid getting into the content of the fear, such as how many calories are in the food, why they need fats in their diets, etc.
I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me, and that we were doing it together, made this fear something I wasn’t facing alone. The presence and support of parents and siblings and extended family during and after meals is critical.
At the end of my zip-lining experience, my nerves were spent and I felt exhausted. But, I was happy and proud I had faced my fear with the support of family. In the far more essential activity of eating, families can provide similar support to make fears bearable and provide an environment that allows teenagers with eating disorders to recover and flourish.
Parents usually get the best results when they are like the zip-line attendants: calm, empathizing with the fear, and never engaging the source of the fear (in this case, the eating disorder). Avoid getting pulled into the content of the eating disorder thoughts. When your adolescent says they are worried about the caloric content of food, think about what they are really expressing: their anxiety about eating. It is much better to empathize with how scared they are than to debate whether food is healthy for them (spoiler alert: it is).