Emotion coaching for mothers of daughters with eating disorders

Family is an important part of recovery—and researchers are tapping into its potential.

Our technology-driven lives mean youth are constantly barraged by an endless stream of images—many of which are unrealistic and potentially harmful. These images often expose youth to idealized portraits of thin girls and women, which can fuel negative self-perception and, in some, eating disorders.

In her study, PhD candidate Karolina Rozworska examines the use of emotion coaching as a way to regulate negative emotions associated with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa. 

Karolina Rozworska is a doctoral student in counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia and has recently completed a psychology residency at The Ottawa Hospital, where she worked in mental health and rehabilitation.

Eating disorders involve a combination of biological and psychological factors, and effective treatments can require that family members be actively involved in the recovery process. Rozworska’s dissertation project employs meta-emotion philosophy to study how mothers support the emotional development of their daughters, including the use of emotion coaching.

“Emotion coaching is simple, but not easy. It is a skill that offers a very practical way to support emotion regulation in children and youth.”

“Caregivers and mothers are an invaluable part of the recovery process for young women with eating disorders,” adds Rozworska. “In fact, the role of family is so essential that the best treatment we have right now for anorexia nervosa in youth is to engage families as partners and leaders in normalizing their children’s eating habits.”

The importance of research like this is apparent when we consider that eating disorders affect many young Canadians, says Dr. Richard Young, a Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researcher and professor of counselling psychology at UBC.

“Rozworska’s study helps our understanding of the nature of this condition by looking at emotional relationships between mothers and their daughters.”

Building on past research to make novel discoveries

Emotion coaching was first introduced by Dr. John Gottman and colleagues in the 1990s as a way to help youth validate their emotions and problem-solve. Studies show that mothers play a more dominant role when it comes to emotion coaching their adolescent children, but that emotion coaching is employed less often as youth age and if the mother or her child has emotional or behavioural difficulties. As such, teaching emotion coaching to parents of youth with such difficulties can be a beneficial addition to treatment.

The way in which parents respond to their daughters’ emotions can impact how daughters regulate their own emotions, which is related to their physical health, academic achievements and social skills. 

For her study, Rozworska surveyed 60 mothers of daughters with eating disorders between 12 and 24 years of age, and a similar group of control mothers of daughters who did not have an eating disorder.

“I want to know what makes anorexia so difficult to treat, and contribute to research in this area in order to help patients,” says Rozworska.

Rozworska’s research explores not only to what extent mothers use emotion coaching, but how their use of emotion coaching is related to their psychological and emotional states.

“It is key to also understand the emotional state of parents and find ways to better support them in their role as the primary source of emotional support for their children.”

Over the long-term, Rozworska adds, “knowing more about mothers’ challenges and their relationship with their daughters can better inform the types of supports health professionals offer to mothers.”

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