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Reclaiming the Power of “When” in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Oona Hanson

“When did this start?” “When will things get any better?” “When will this be over?”

Time is one of those things parents think a lot about during their child’s eating disorder treatment. 

We may spend hours, even days, going back in our minds to earlier moments: When did I first notice changes happening? When should I have known something was wrong? When did I make things worse by mistake?

At the start of treatment, things often feel even harder for a while, and “when” can also take us into the future. We project forward in time with a mixture of dread and fear, maybe even despair. As the months or years march on, it’s natural to feel impatient for our loved one–and our lives–to get back to some kind of normal. When will they recover? When will they be able to attend college or live independently? When will we get our lives back? 

The word “when” can start to mock us, haunt us, torture us. But it doesn’t have to.

There is another kind of “when” that can empower us and give us hope.

And it all comes down to the role of “when” in the sentence. “When” is one of those words that can be more than one part of speech–giving it a different function and impact depending on the context. I realize you probably weren’t expecting a grammar lesson here. I hope you’ll bear with me. 

As a former English teacher, I love the subtle nuances of word choice. And I’m keenly aware of the power of language to shape our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. And so here is why I care so much about “when”: if referring simply to the timing of an event, the word “when” is an adverb. And by definition, this descriptor separates us from the present moment. 

But “when” can do so much more. 

“When” can also function as a conjunction, something that connects two parts of a sentence–and two ideas. As a connecting word, it becomes an effective tool for parents fighting an eating disorder. And here’s why: “when” can work its magic when we are coaching our loved one through a tough meal.

For families supporting a child to renourish their body, it’s essential to hold boundaries around the eating disorder. Parents often must adopt a “life stops until you eat” approach; otherwise, the illness will make its own harmful decisions about food. And so during mealtime battles it’s common to say things like, “You can’t go to school if you don’t complete your breakfast,” “If you have that last bite, you can have your cell phone back,” or “You know you need to finish this smoothie or else you can’t go out with your friends.”

I invite families to consider a little grammatical shift and harness the power of “when” as a conjunction:

When you complete your breakfast, you can go to school.” 

When you have that last bite, you can use your phone.” 

When you finish your smoothie, you can go out with your friends.”

Do you hear the difference? 

And even more important, do you feel the difference?

This “when” implies optimism, that eating isn’t a matter of if but when. It demonstrates you expect them to be able to eat and that the thing they want to do will happen. It lays out a simple order of operations. “When” helps parents stay both calmer and firmer–and also shrinks the opportunity for negotiation or power struggle. “When” takes out the guess-work, the doubt. “When” suggests inevitability. 

Of course, one little word isn’t going to slay the eating disorder beast. If only it were that easy.  

But I also know that language matters during recovery, not only in terms of what we are communicating but how. And so I believe in the power of “when” as an important component of a family’s toolkit.  

When parents feel calm and confident, the eating disorder starts to lose its power. When we know our love is stronger than the illness, we can continue the hard work of supporting recovery. When a child feels our fierce protection, healing is possible.  



  1. Lol

    This article has really resonated with me today, tough day not helped by my impatience at lunch. I’m tired and need to see an end in sight. She is improving, 13yr old daughter, following a plan and gaining weight. Its the daily grind , on hols at the moment and our obstacle at the moment is getting her to sit. She has improved but needs constant prompting and reassuring, very difficult to find time for her siblings. Thanks for letting me vent

  2. Brittany Kennedy

    I noticed this last night when my 12 year old daughter was finishing her last snack of the night. I didn’t use when but I said we can’t go on our walk unless you finished your snack and she did because she wouldn’t dare miss a chance to exercise. But the use of the word when would be better at encouraging. Thank you. Looking foward to more help during meal times. I am taking all suggestions. Moms or parents continue to fight the good fight.

  3. Eva Musby

    Oona, so well explained, thank you!

    Using “When – then you can” instead of “If – then you cannot” can also help getting into complicated deals, don’t you think?
    I mean, if my child bravely and heroically managed 95% of her food, and I’ve said “If you don’t finish all your food you can’t go out with friends”, then to be consistent I have to cancel the friends. I’ve set up a power struggle, where any child can be forgiven for saying “Next time I won’t bother eating at all”

    Whereas with “When”, I keep some space to make wise decisions as the situation unfolds.

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