Emotional anorexia is behavior characterized by reduced feelings, empathy or total aversion to emotion. In addition, emotional anorexics pull away from others and devalue connection and relationships in place of solitary activities.
I wanted to write a post on this topic because occasionally I come across a teen, either through intern interviews, at speaking engagements or parent e-mails, about an emotionally anorexic son or daughter. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, and I believe that the increase in emotional anorexia is in direct proportion to the growth of technological devices that encourage solo activities, such as: YouTube videos, video games and Facebook.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that we as a society are becoming more technologically advanced, but I believe that emotional anorexa may be an unforeseen side effect that we must examine and handle.
How does emotional anorexia present? The first and most simple way to spot a symptom of emotional anorexia is by asking your teen or tween how they feel about something. For example, when I interview teen interns, I ask the following questions:
- “What do you do for fun?”
- “When do you feel happy and why?”
- “What is the most stressful thing about your life? What do you worry about most?”
- “How do you feel about some of the stressful parts of your life?”
These are questions that require the interviewee to first think through how they feel and then articulate those emotions. I find that emotional anorexic teens have a lot of difficulty answering these questions, or actually cannot answer them at all.
Parents and teachers might find this as well when they are trying to address a problem or negative behavior. Emotional anorexics cannot or will not articulate how they feel, making it impossible for adults to help.
I believe there are two kinds of emotional anorexics:
1. Teens who are purposefully holding back expressing their emotions.
2. Teens who simply do not know how to express their emotions.
Why does emotional anorexia happen?
I believe that teens purposefully withhold their feelings either to gain control over their own emotions and their environment or to demonstrate power over the adult or other person. When teenagers feel out of control, lost or depressed, they are often scared. Controlling, repressing or not expressing their emotions allow teens to feel more powerful and in control of their negative feelings. This, of course, is an illusion. When we feel sad or depressed, not talking about or feeling the sadness does not make the feelings go away; they merely gets repressed.
The second reason teens withhold their emotions is to demonstrate power over those around them. Like some types of anorexia control and power over the food that is put in their body is a huge emotional part of the eating disorder. Parents who are desperately trying to connect on an emotional level with their teens, might find that their teens push back or punish their parents by withholding honest discussions of emotions.
Lastly, there are those teens who are literally unable to articulate their emotional inner world. This is a lack of emotional intelligence, about which I have written extensively. Some signs of emotional anorexia are similar to other disorders, such as depression and Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. If you or your child are showing such symptoms, please seek professional help.
How can parents help emotionally anorexic teens and kids?
First, it is important to note that emotional anorexia is not only a problem for teens. I actually believe that more and more adults are finding their own emotional anorexia to be debilitating in building personal and business relationships. This also seems to be a common problem in the dating world for many singles looking to really connect.
For parents and adults working with teenagers, I think it is first important to pinpoint why their adolescent is emotionally anorexic. Do they lack the skills to communicate their emotions? Are they withholding them to gain power? Are they trying to control their inner world by being numb in their outer world? This will help guide discussion and understanding.
Second, I encourage parents to use the same skills taught for emotional intelligence, such as “name and tame,” teaching teens to be able to simply name what they are feeling and then deal with it. Also, put a positive emphasis on feeling as opposed to doing. Lastly, encouraging teens to reflect through journaling, deep discussion and even meditation, as opposed to filling up leisure time with TV, games and online chatting.
NOTE: This is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological assistance. If you suspect you or your child suffer from emotional anorexia, please seek professional help.
This is part of EmoSocial Intelligence series. If you would like to read more articles on how to read and build nonverbal communication skills in your family or with your child, please visit our EmoSocial Intelligence page for tips and updated research.
Vanessa Van Petten, youthologist and teen author of the parenting book “You’re Grounded!,” manages RadicalParenting.com, a parenting blog written by 119 teen writers, ages 12-20 to help parents and adults get an honest and open view into the world and mind of youth. Van Petten’s work and blog have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, CNN, Fox News, Real Housewives of Orange County and much more! Radical Parenting