When recovering from an eating disorder, it’s quite common to gain weight. This may seem philosophically obvious, but it can devastate eating disorder recovery attempts if the weight gain is not handled carefully. If your child is undergoing treatment for an eating disorder, then body image is a big part of the work she or he is doing in therapy. But you are the one living with your child at home, seeing the discomfort as the weight comes on, and watching your child grow out of clothes.
Many of us who go through the weight fluctuation phase of recovery struggle mightily with constant thoughts that we are messing up. That recovery is bad. That we need to go back to our disordered behaviors to avoid dreaded fat gain. These feelings can reduce us to tears when we go to put on a favorite outfit, an outfit that we remember as being comfortable and loose, and discover that it is too tight for our changing bodies.
Here are a few tips for parents who are supporting a child in recovery who is gaining weight.
Accept the size of your child
Your child probably hates the size of his or her body right now. It’s very traumatic to gain weight in eating disorder recovery. It will take time for your child’s body to adjust to non-disordered eating, and it will take at least as much time for your child’s mind to adjust to a non-disordered body.
You may be surprised how much weight your child gains in recovery. You may even be shocked and uncomfortable with it. Some people fluctuate up and down by 50 pounds or more during eating disorder recovery. It is natural for you to worry that your child is swinging too far in the opposite direction, gaining too much weight.
We live in a fatphobic society, and your concerns about your child’s weight are normal under these circumstances. But your concerns will not help your child heal from an eating disorder. It is very important that you accept your child’s body at every size throughout recovery and beyond.
This is actually a simple practice to put in place. Every time you notice that you have a negative thought about your child’s body size (or anybody’s body size), notice the thought, and then change your mind. Research books and articles related to Health at Every Size (HAES) to provide you with new messages about body size and health. This takes practice, but it’s essential to helping your child heal.
Trust your child’s body
When we have an eating disorder, our brains become increasingly divorced from our bodies. We train ourselves to overcome feelings of hunger and satiety, and become disconnected from our natural instinct to feed ourselves and move our bodies in ways that serve us.
Part of eating disorder recovery is reconnecting the mind-body communication pathways, and this requires the person who has an eating disorder to learn to trust a body that he or she has previously determined to be untrustworthy. This is hard. Many of us find that learning Intuitive Eating is the key to full recovery, but it is also incredibly difficult for us to do because we have forcibly cut off our bodily intuition.
Our bodies are being nourished properly for the first time in a long time, so they grab onto every morsel, holding onto it in case of another famine. Of course when we are medically underweight, we are on a plan with the specific goal of gaining weight, but the majority of us with eating disorders are not medically underweight, yet our bodies naturally go up and down as we heal from our eating disorder.
This is why it’s so important for parents to trust their kids’ bodies, even when our kids don’t feel they are trustworthy. Even when we are scared that our kids will get “too fat,” or when we don’t know whether they will even out, we have to overcome these thoughts and reprogram ourselves and them with explicit messages about the body’s natural methods for maintaining homeostasis. Here are some trust-building statements to say out loud to yourself, other family members and your child:
- Bodies are so smart. If we listen to our bodies, they find balance.
- Our bodies are naturally self-regulating. It can take time to tune into how our bodies feel and what they want, but we’re working on it.
- We were born knowing how to eat, when to eat, and what to eat. Sometimes our thoughts get in the way of this inborn knowledge, but, with practice, we can reconnect with our intuitive body wisdom.
Be prepared for the fallout
While eating disorders are about much more than food and body size, food and body size are massive triggers for someone who has an eating disorder. When our bodies gain weight in recovery, alarm bells ring in our heads, telling us that this is very, very wrong.
Your child may rage and scream. The body was the way that your child was gaining control over life, and now that the body is growing, it feels deeply uncomfortable.
Your child may cry and mourn. The body became the focus your child’s self-worth. As the body changes, your child may feel worthless and unloveable.
These feelings not over-dramatized or exaggerated. Your child is truly hurting and mourning the loss of the eating disorder. The eating disorder was a coping mechanism, and losing that coping mechanism is traumatic.
It is hard to see our children suffer. It is hard not to want them to calm down and stop feeling angry and sad. But it is critical that our children receive the space they need to express the very real panic, fear and despair that comes with losing an eating disorder and gaining weight. When the fallout comes – and it may come all day, every day for a while – take a deep breath and remember that it’s real, and it needs space.
Don’t try to distract your child from the pain. Don’t try to take it away or tell him or her that it’s overblown.
Listen. Feel. Hold. Love.
Let the pain come.
It will pass, but let it be for now.