Emotionality and Disordered Eating; Why helping children understand and process their emotionality is key

By Food Freedom Coach Chloe Jane Prince

The hardest part of my journey was when I sat across in the garden from my mum, and told her I couldn’t live anymore.

I thought I had healed my eating disorder, but it was about so much more than the food.

Many people believe that disordered eating, eating disorders and obesity are triggered by a lack of willpower, vanity, laziness or even for attention.

As a Food Freedom Coach, I work with people to heal their relationships with food for good. From my recovery, training and working with clients I have learned that it is about so much more than that.

With the rate of eating disorders, obesity and diet culture only increasing, we have to accept that there is more to this societal disease.

Our relationship with food and our bodies is influenced by so many things. From my experience, two things are most influential: emotionality and beliefs.

Babies are born intuitive.

They cry when they need food or comfort.

They eat when they are hungry, stop when they are full and laugh when they are happy.

By the age of ten, children have formed the majority of their foundational beliefs.

These beliefs are stories that are vital to making sense of the world around them.

Examples of beliefs include:

‘I have to work hard to be good enough
‘I am stupid no matter what I do’
‘I have to be brave to be loved’

‘I only have value and deserve love if I meet conditions.’

The all felt so real and important for me.

Beliefs are created from a child’s experiences in the world.

Their understanding of the world they live in is limited, however, so they look up to their parents, caregivers and role models to build their understanding of the world and their place in it.

What most children don’t realise is that these role models have their own belief systems.

The belief systems are the lenses they interpret and react to the world.

This means that as adults we must be aware of the beliefs we teach to future generations. Most people do not even realise they even have these beliefs.

As adults, we believe that we must shield children from the emotional pain we experience. We keep our fears and worries to ourselves, using tools such as alcohol or food to numb emotion. In our ignorance, many children in this world are not taught a lifechanging lesson: how to regulate emotion.

Instead, they learn to mask.

They learn that it isn’t okay to show emotionality.

You can only bottle these feelings for so long.

They leak out.

They have to.

These beliefs are further embedded by damaging cultural narratives. For example, ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘stop being such a girl’ both equate vulnerability and emotionality with weakness.

Growing up, children learn that they must hide their emotionality. When they have such intense feelings and do not have the ability to communicate them, it is overwhelming and destructive. This leads to the use of destructive methods to express emotion, like tantrum, outburst or withdrawal. These are they only ways they can cope with and make sense of their internal sensation. As they mature, they develop additional unhealthy coping mechanisms. I know because I experienced exactly this.

I remember being a child.

I remember my mum crying in the bathroom when she was upset.

I didn’t understand that she was bottling up her big feelings.

She hid them to protect me.

Feeling she had to be mum, always happy and loving.

She is an amazing mum and my accomplishments are a testament to her strength and love as a parent. That she could not teach me emotional regulation was not a conscious decision. It is a failure of our society.

Growing up, I had intense feelings and, not knowing how to deal with them, I found other solutions.

Many were destructive.

A lack of tools to cope with my intense feelings were compounded by tumultuous life events.

My parents divorced.

I was groomed and sexually abused by a teacher.

My grandad passed.

My dad told me he was choosing his wife over his children and abandoned me when I needed him most.

I wish I understood that none of it was my fault.

It wasn’t because there was something wrong with me.

My feelings were so intense that I desperately avoided processing them, feeling that it was an impossible task. This left me believing I would always be unsafe and out of control. It should not be a surprise that this was more than a 10-year-old could handle. I carry compassion for my child self, who bottled those emotions up. But bottling leads to explosion, unless you find an outlet. Given that there are very few things you can control at that age, my diet was my tool of choice. I fell down the painful and slippery slope of dieting at 11 years old, struggling with anxiety, anorexia and depression over the next 14 years.

It is the pain I went through that made the person I am today.

Working as a Food Freedom Coach, being unable to cope with intense emotion is a pattern I see every day. The people I work with do not feel it is safe or okay to feel, process or express their emotionality.

It is my belief and experience that the intense emotions we feel fuel a diet culture selling us an empty promise of conditional happiness and self regard, tied to being in a certain body. This only causes more children, adolescents and adults to use food to cope.

Each year, we see ever more children manipulating their body shape and weight to find happiness and cope with their emotionality. They reach for comfort in food and find control by restricting it. But this doesn’t mean it has to be that way, there is a lot that can be done.

Children learn by observing and replicating those they look up to.

We must start helping ourselves, as adults, to understand emotions so we can help children do the same.

Emotionality is felt and experienced in the body.

We attach stories and thoughts to it which lead us to construct meaning.

When helping people learn to re-feel, I find it direct them to connect to the sensations in their body. I help them notice the stories and thoughts we have around the sensations. Doing so enables us to observe our emotions and thoughts, and therefor to understand them.

Here are some of the questions I use with my clients to begin the process of feeling the peace they try to find through diet. I would love for them to help you understand your emotionality:

  • Where do I feel this emotionality in my body? E.g. chest, stomach…
  • What does it feel like? E.g. Heavy, fast, hollow…
  • If I was to give this emotion a colour what would it be? E.g. Pink, yellow, green…
  • What thoughts do I have with this emotion? E.g. ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’, ‘I have to push on’, ‘I am being stupid’.

A key part of my work is understanding that emotions aren’t always something we need to fully understand. We don’t have to understand it or make sense.

We may just need to take the time to notice and observe our thoughts and feelings. So if you feel sadness in your knee and it is the colour purple, what matters is noticing, not judging.

By developing emotional resilience, when we are with a child who needs help processing their emotions, we can ask these the same questions from a place of understanding and experience. More importantly, they will observe us taking time to feel and understand without judgement. Thereby teaching them to do so as well.

Another thing I implore you to do is to be mindful of the language you use.

Remembering that children pick up on everything. Especially the things we don’t want them to. The words we hear become the thoughts we have.

Notice how you talk about your own emotions or the emotions of others.

How you talk about your coping strategies including the food you eat and the way your body looks. If you say ‘I’m having a bad day’ as you reach for a glass of wine, a child will unconsciously learn that wine is the solution to uncomfortable feelings.

Saying things like ‘don’t eat that or you will get fat, no one will love you and you will be unhappy’ will create an nightmarish narrative for innocent but malleable children.

But the most important aspect of improving anyones mental health is to ensure you are kind to yourself.

Humans are biologically, neurologically and inescapably imperfect. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do things right. So even though you are learning how to better process your emotionality, an thereby helping your loved ones do so too, that doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes.

I am telling you now as somebody who has built a successful career from helping people have healthy relationships with emotionality, food and body that I still make mistakes and get it wrong.

I make sure to treat myself with compassion, and never let that stop me.

So, if you catch yourself saying something that isn’t helpful, notice it and observe it without judgement and remember you, and everyone else in this world, are doing the very best they can and that is all we can ever do.

Note from the editor – Chloe is an incredible human being, doing amazing work, and making a better world. Check her out on Instagram, Facebook and her website

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