Communication during recovery from an eating disorder is vital. It is important that the sufferer and their parent and/or carer learn how to effectively talk to one another in a way that allows each person to feel heard and understood. Whilst it is very natural to want to step into a more dominating role which allows you to provide expertise, wisdom and to care for your loved one, this can result in a defensive response. Instead, we encourage parents and carers to communicate with their loved ones in a way that does not involve trying to fix anything, change anything or refute your loved one’s experiences. Rather, your role is simply to be with them, to listen in a non-judgmental manner and to validate their experiences.
The LESS (Listen, Empathy, Share, Support) approach provides a framework to assist parents to communicate more effectively with their loved one. However, it is important to remember that this type of communicating may initially feel unnatural and will require practice. Carers should try not to be too hard on themselves if they make a mistake.
The LESS Approach
Listening, when done effectively, can convey our respect for another person’s thoughts and feelings. Whilst listening to our loved ones sounds easy, in reality it can be a difficult skill to master. To ensure that our loved one feels heard and understood it is important to give non-verbal signs that we are listening (e.g. eye contact, nodding, facial expressions) and to use summaries to clarify that what we have heard is consistent with what our loved one means. This will also allow your loved one a chance to reflect on what they have said. At times, it may also be important to search for any possible deeper meanings behind what your loved one is saying (e.g. there may be an underlying belief that “I am unlovable”).
Expressing empathy involves parents and carers carefully listening to their child’s feelings and perspectives in order to try and see the world through their eyes and understand their emotional response. Whilst parents and carers are not expected to accept or agree with their child’s point of view, it is important that they avoid providing judgments, criticising or blaming.
It is normal for some parents to experience difficulty tolerating their loved ones distress. As a result they can inadvertently invalidate their child’s emotional pain by saying something like “Don’t be silly, you have so many people who love you”. However, this type of response may leave your loved one feeling discounted and rejected.
It is important for parents to share in the non-eating disorder parts of their loved ones life. Parents may like to schedule time for these activities (e.g. playing a board game, going for a walk, seeing a movie) and to involve siblings.
Supporting your loved one and increasing their self-confidence is imperative when overcoming an eating disorder. Parents and carers can help build their child’s self-confidence by emphasising that change is possible and that they are capable of carrying out the changes necessary.
Often this can be difficult to achieve due to the hostility and rejection which can be displayed at times towards anyone close to the sufferer. This may also work vice versa where the parent or carer can become angry towards the eating disorder part of their loved one. It is important in those moments to remember that your loved one is much more than their eating disorder and to focus on the aspects of your loved one that are separate from the illness. Provide your loved one with as much love, warmth, care and encouragement as you can.
If you would like more support in learning how to communicate with your loved one about their eating disorder please contact us at BodyMatters Australasia. We can provide one off consultations and ongoing consultations for parents and partners. In addition, we offer parent and partner support groups on the first Saturday of each month.
Stay tuned for our next installment of our parent and carers blog series on helping your loved one manage their emotions.
Treasure, J., Schmidt, U., & McDonald, P. (2010). The clinicians guide to collaborative caring in eating disorders. London: Routledge
Treasure, J., Smith, G., & Crane, A. (2007). Skills-based learning for caring for a loved one with an eating disorder: The new Maudsley method. London: Routledge.