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The other day, a Dad asked, at what age do you see eating disorders starting nowadays and what can I do to prevent this illness from being part of my family. With Canadian statistics showing that one in three girls will engage in self-harm, eating disorder, depression and/or anxiety in her teen years, it’s well worth reading on.

 Often parents, in particular Moms, get the blame when teens develop an eating disorder, but there is a personality style that lays the foundations for these this type of mental health problem. There is a genetic variable, the Super-feeler and/or early stress in childhood that is the foundational culprit in the development of eating disorders and other internalizing disorders, such as self-harm, OCD, depression and anxiety. Genetics, societal values, peer pressure, media, life stressors, bullying and coping style are all contributing factors that help create the perfect storm.  As a parent, you can look for signs that your child is a super-feeler from preschool age and help him/her to develop skills to self-regulate and navigate their rich emotional world with success.

So what makes a super-feeler unique:

  • These individuals are the emotional-sponges of the house.  They experience emotions very intensely –their own and those of others. These are the children who are the “emotional barometer” of the family and pick up on the stress in the environment.  They are the girls who grow into the caretakers of others, but at a huge cost to knowing their true inner self.
  • Emotion avoidance is the key strategy used by these individuals.   As they experience feelings so deeply, they often jump into the role of rescuing others to protect themselves from feeling their own pain.
  • Unfortunately, in taking this stance of avoiding their true emotions, these individuals lack the ability to fully express and have their emotional needs met.  Often they find themselves in a state to being overwhelmed much of the time.  This is where the skills of emotional intelligence and how to self-regulation emotions needs to be taught, so unhealthy behaviours do not accidently get wired together and practiced.
  • As a parent, it starts with being able to tolerate big emotions yourself and allowing space to “see” and “hear” and “get” your daughter when she is feeling the hard emotions, such as fear, anger and sadness. This means things can get pretty messy and ugly at times.  You as a parent need to grow big shoulders and tolerate these moments so your little person knows that she can come to you with anything and you will listen unconditionally.

Some signs you have a super-feeler:

  • Your daughter worries about your feelings and those of her friends more than herself
  • Your child internalizes her hard emotions, but complains of chronic somatic symptoms such as a sore stomach on school days or headaches often
  • Your super-feeler may become more upset than others in the family when a parent or teacher raises their voice
  • Your daughter is very in-tune with your emotional state and perceived threat in the environment
  • Your daughter may dismiss suggestions that she feels scared, angry or sad, instead quietly avoiding these overwhelming emotions
  • Sound familiar? (Original source: Juno House handout)

A great website on the role of parents in the recovery of an eating disorder

A great book on growing the social/emotional world of your children~ Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman

As a personal rant to conclude, I think the idyllic pursuit of raising or being “the perfect girl” needs to be shattered by parents, teachers and media. It’s not attainable and it most certainly does not support the development of an integrated, healthy brain.  My advice to this Dad, allow things to be messy and encourage your daughter to speak up about her sometimes yucky inner emotional world.  Be there to applaud her along the way and help her get in touch with her inner bitch if necessary!

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XX Tasha