Two Steps to Being OK When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

Eva Musby

What can we parents do when we are hurting – when we’re in the grip of fear, hate, anger or despair? It’s so hard to support a child with an eating disorder when we’re not OK. It’s so hard to do anything. So what to do?

We can make it ‘OK’.

  • O is for Observe
  • K is for Kindness

I have researched and tested out many ways we can take care of our wellbeing, and I’m offering you some of the best bits with this ‘OK’ acronym.

It can change your mental state within minutes and all you have to remember is two letters. Try it and tell me if you like it.

Start with O for Observe.

Make a mental pause to step back and observe what’s going on for you. You’re looking for thoughts, emotions and most importantly, physical sensations. For example, you’re pressing the ‘Pause’ button on the thought “I’ll never get my child to eat”, and as you do so you’re recognizing fear and you’re noticing how tight your chest is.

‘O for Observe’ allows you to be aware of the burden you’re carrying. Before taking that step back, you probably didn’t even notice your chest was knotted – you were too caught up in an endless chain of thoughts. Before ‘O for Observe’, if you noticed you were scared (or angry, or distressed), you were probably judging yourself for feeling that way. ‘O for Observe’ invites you to turn off the autopilot, be present, and allow whatever is there right now.

Now you’ve done ‘O for Observe’ you’ve nicely interrupted your internal chatter, but perhaps your chest is really hurting and now you’re also conscious that your breathing is irregular and you’re getting nervous. ‘Observing’ seems like a daft thing to do. And it probably is, unless you also bring in ‘K for Kindness’.

‘K for Kindness’.

What’s needed now is kindness towards yourself and your experience in this moment. The most natural way of doing this is to distract yourself. If you’re in a horrible mental state and you’re very alone, I recommend you stick to that while you seek professional support. The way I’m proposing here, though, is to actively invite kindness into you. This route is usually more healing and frees you from constantly having to distract yourself or exert self-control.

Ask yourself what kindness means for you right now. With the feelings you’re experiencing, what do you most need? Perhaps it is a sense of being held, or loved or understood, or maybe you’re longing for peace or rest. Perhaps what would nourish your soul right now is a sense of light or warmth.

So send kindness – or peace, or light, or whatever you most need – send that inward now. You can help yourself by voicing your wish: “May I have kindness”, “May I be peaceful”. Or by placing your hands on the part of your body that most needs comfort.

Kind companions

Kindness towards yourself can be tricky if you’re locked inside in a small, tight me-me-me. Before things got really tough you might have gotten through life by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

Self-reliance might have deprived you of a greater quality: interdependence. The connection is crucial to being OK. So when you do ‘K for Kindness’, bring to your aid the kindness of others.

Imagine all the parents who are in the same boat as you. Their story might be different, but they know what it’s like to suffer as you are suffering, and their deep needs are just the same. You could imagine parents in general or even take in the whole of humanity or the whole of life. Or you could bring to mind a specific being – real or imagined – who dearly cares for you and will hold you – or for you – what is too much to hold on your own.

Expanding the kindness

So in your mind, you’re now giving yourself a kindness and receiving kindness from others. See what it’s like to expand outward, sending kindness out to specific people or to the world in general, including yourself: “May we all have kindness”, “May we all be peaceful”. You can include your child in these wishes, if it feels good.

More than a trick of the mind

‘OK’ is a low-tech but effective way of changing your biochemistry. It can shift you from a state of fight or flight into a compassionate and resourceful state. You are allowing your limbic brain to halt its frenetic work on your behalf, you’re halting the production of adrenalin and cortisol and you’re producing feel-good hormones like oxytocin. And because the brain rewires itself with use, the more you consciously do ‘OK’, the more likely your brain will do it for you spontaneously.

When you’ve drifted away from being ‘OK’

You can do ‘OK’ for a few seconds while you’re in the middle of a stressful event, and you can take the time to do it later, addressing your feelings in the ‘now’ as you recall the event. You can be sure that your mind will regularly wander off because that’s what minds do. As soon as you notice this, you’re already doing ‘O for Observing’ – how great is that?! Add ‘K for Kindness’ and keep going until the current wave of suffering subsides.

Kind action

And that’s it. Being OK through Observing and Kindness. It doesn’t change your external reality but it may change how you relate to it. Which will then allow you to make wise choices and take wise actions. For instance, you might be moved to go and get the kindness you need from friends or professionals. The ‘OK’ visualization, I hope, will not just give you instant relief, but will help you make great use of real connections – for a shoulder to cry on, for a listening ear, for shared laughter.

For more on eating disorders, mindfulness and compassion, see Eva Musby’s book “Anorexia and other eating disorders – How to help your child eat well and be well.”

Eva Musby has also produced audio resources guiding you with the process described here.

For more on compassion, see the work of Kristin Neff and of Paul Gilbert.

For more on compassionate mindfulness practices, look up Buddhist loving-kindness (‘metta’) meditations.

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