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 when a parent emails in about their son or daughter, who is emotionally anorexic. This, unfortunately is not an uncommon phenomenon and I believe the increase in emotional anorexia is in direct proportion to the growth of technological devices that encourage solo activities–YouTube videos, Gameboys, Xbox, Facebook. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that as a society we are becoming more technologically advanced, but I believe this is an unforeseen side-effect that must be dealt with.
How does emotional anorexia manifest?
The first and most simple way to see a symptom of emotional anorexia is when you ask a teen or tween how they feel about something rather than just about something. For example, I ask the following questions when I interview teen interns:
“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?”
The questions in italics are the emotional questions–they require the interviewee to think through how they feel and 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 get to the bottom of a problem or negative behavior. When they ask the teen what is going on for them the teen cannot or will not articulate what is going on for them on the inside, making it impossible for adults to help. This brings up an important point, I believe there are two kinds of emotional anorexics: Teens who are purposefully holding back expressing their emotions and those who simply do not know how to express their emotions.
Why does emotional anorexia happen?
Teens who purposefully withhold their feelings I believe do so either to gain control over their own emotions and their environment or to demonstrate power over the adult or person asking. When teenagers feel out of control, lost or depressed they are often scared. Controlling, repressing or not expressing their emotions is a way for them to feel more powerful than what they are feeling and in control of the negative feelings. This, of course, is an illusion. When we feel sad or depressed, not talking about or feeling the sadness does not make it go away, it 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.
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 not have the skills to communicate their emotions? Are they withholding for 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. Doing what we call name and tame, teaching teens to be able t simply name what they are feeling and then deal with it. And also putting 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.
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.