Listening To and Not Criticizing Your Child During Eating Disorder Treatment

Going through eating disorder treatment can be hugely challenging for children and adolescents, as it’s an experience marked by fear of the unknown, frustration with the pace of progress, and confusion with so many unfamiliar adults involved. The most important adults involved in a child’s treatment and recovery are their parents, and how they engage with their child can have huge impacts on treatment outcomes.

Today, we’re exploring the topic of listening to and not criticizing your child during eating disorder treatment. Read on to learn more about why listening matters and why it’s important to avoid criticism.

Why Listening Matters

There are many reasons why listening to your child matters, especially as they’re going through eating disorder treatment. As previously mentioned, eating disorder treatment can be a scary time for a child or an adolescent. After all, it’s hard at any age to make massive changes in lifestyle, thought patterns, and behavioral routines! That’s why having empathetic listeners in your life is hugely helpful, as they can act as grounding forces while so much else is changing.

It’s not just listening that’s important; it’s listening with empathy. Empathetic listening does not mean you will or must agree with what your child is expressing. It can be challenging for parents to not jump into the conversation and offer their thoughts, opinions, or instructions, but sometimes it’s most helpful for a child to be able to talk freely about what’s happening for them and what’s on their minds. Listening with empathy means sitting with the child and hearing what they have to say with full attention to their experiences. You’re not thinking about what you’re about to say next.

As you really listen to your child, you may find yourself at a loss for words, even if it’s uncomfortable. You can respond by repeating back the thoughts they have expressed to reassure them they have been heard. You may also let them know that you’re thinking about what they just said or simply say, “Thank you for telling me. I’m not sure what to say right now, but please know that I’m really glad that you feel comfortable talking to me.”

Why It’s Important to Avoid Criticism

Other than listening with empathy, one of the most important ways to engage with a child or adolescent in eating disorder treatment is to avoid criticizing them. This response can have hugely negative impacts on them and their treatment outcomes.

There have been many studies that look into the effect of parental criticism. One study from 1984 analyzed the responses from 883 high school students, finding that there was a positive relationship between the amount of criticism perceived by a teenager about a specific behavior or attitude and the likelihood that the teenager would perceive themselves that way (1). An example of this cycle would be if a teenager’s parents called them lazy and, in response, they viewed themselves as lazy, which has a direct negative impact on their self-esteem.

Another study used twin studies to show that parental criticism had an impact on adolescent somatic symptoms and that parental criticism could increase adolescent somatic symptoms (2). Somatic symptoms are physical manifestations of distress that are often linked to psychological factors. They are not intentionally produced or feigned and include pain, fatigue, muscle aches, and malaise – all of which are common complaints for children with eating disorders. 

Lastly, a neurological imaging study of adolescent brains showed that when an adolescent received negative parental feedback, the neural “saliency network” (anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) became activated, which differed from when they received positive parent feedback. This also influenced their state of mind, worsening their self-reported mood (3).

The Overall Impact of Parental Criticism During Eating Disorder Treatment

Together, these three studies show how parental criticism can influence self-image, somatic symptoms like stomach aches, and mood. All of these things strongly relate to eating disorders, which is not to draw causation but rather to highlight that how parents engage with their children throughout eating disorder treatment matters.

Avoiding criticism can be difficult, especially when it’s unintentional. It’s important to consider your responses to your child before you say them aloud. It’s also crucial to note that your words might be perceived as criticism, even if to you, they don’t sound like criticism.

To navigate this challenging topic, it can be helpful for parents to have the support of mental health professionals, like those at Hidden River. At Hidden River, children and adolescents receive high quality eating disorder treatment on a beautiful estate, and parents play a role in the process through family therapy. In therapy, parents receive the support they need to learn how to listen rather than criticize for the benefit of their child.

To get in touch with Hidden River and learn more about their services, please reach out to

Visit our website to learn more about eating disorder treatment at Hidden River. For a closer look at our grounds and living quarters, take a look at our gallery.


  1. Harris, I.D. & Howard, K.I. (1984). Parental criticism and the adolescent experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 13, 113-121.
  2. Horwitz, B. N., Marceau, K., Narusyte, J., Ganiban, J., Spotts, E. L., Reiss, D., Lichtenstein, P., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2015). Parental criticism is an environmental influence on adolescent somatic symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 29(2), 283–289.
  3. Van Houtum, L.A.E.M. et. al. (2022). Adolescents’ affective and neural responses to parental praise and criticism. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 54.

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