If your child has an eating disorder, it’s very possible that they feel angry while recovering. Most parents do everything they can to support their children, and they do not anticipate the anger that often comes with recovery. Anger during eating disorder recovery can look like:
- Yelling at you
- Refusing to go places and do things with you
- Mumbling curses under their breath
- Angry looks and smirks
- Talking about you with disdain to other people
- Criticizing you
Almost all parents have done the absolute best job they possibly can in raising their child to be whole, confident and strong. When a child has an eating disorder, it can feel like a slap in the face after all the effort you have put into parenting.
And yet, here it is. And it means there is work to be done.
Why your child gets angry when recovering from an eating disorder
Many people who have eating disorders use eating disorder behaviors as a way to go around, avoid, or completely ignore uncomfortable feelings. Instead of processing emotions in a healthy manner, eating disorder behaviors help take feelings underground. This results in a build-up of negative emotions for which they have no skills (other than maladaptive ones like restricting, bingeing and purging) to process.
This is why it can be very normal for your child to feel angry when recovering from an eating disorder. It’s often a sign that they are feeling feelings. Anger is one of the most common feelings, and is typically easier to access and express than more complicated emotions like despair, fear, loneliness, distrust, and languishing.
During eating disorder recovery, your child must learn new skills to process their complex feelings in healthy, adaptive ways. These skills are easy to comprehend on an intellectual level, but they are very difficult to practice, and even more difficult to integrate into everyday behavior.
Getting angry can be a good sign
Recovering from an eating disorder requires your child to practice processing feelings like anger in real-time. Because they have incomplete coping tools for doing this, it feels raw and terrifying when anger comes up. At the same time, parents, siblings and other loved ones experience a person who was fairly pleasant and easy-going transform into one who seems irrationally angry.
This is a critical moment in recovery. When your child stops hiding their feelings and allows socially unattractive emotions such as anger to arise, it means they are healing. But it’s also very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of this anger. It’s hard to watch your child who has an eating disorder tap into all their rage and anger.
Your child may feel very sorry. But they actually need to be unapologetic about having feelings, including anger. They know this is hard for you, but they also need you to be able to tolerate their anger as they heal. They need a safe space in which to exercise their new tools for feeling feelings in real-time, which includes feeling anger and other “unacceptable” feelings.
You can set boundaries around angry behavior, but be careful not to set boundaries around feelings. Parents can and should help children untangle, label, and feel their feelings. This is a critical parenting skill that can be learned. However, it’s fine to set boundaries around behaviors like:
- Hitting and physical violence
You can tell your child that when these things happen you will call a time out and address the behavior. But you will always return to the feelings that drove the behavior, and you understand that it’s hard to learn how to process feelings, and you’re there to help them do it safely. Make sure you follow through and always go back to have the difficult conversations that need to happen about difficult emotions.
It will get harder before it gets easier
Difficult emotions may be hard for you to see, especially since many people who have eating disorders seem pretty easy-going and agreeable. People who have eating disorders often anticipate others’ emotions and are sensitive to socially-acceptable behavior. Many mold their emotional expression to fit others’ needs.
You may not have noticed how much was remaining unsaid about how your child felt and what they sensed on an hourly basis. There’s a good chance they have been hiding a lot from you.
You may have never asked them to repress their emotions, but many times kids behave in ways that they believe will protect their loved ones from dangerous emotions like anger. Your child may have intuited that you couldn’t handle their anger, and thus found ways to work around it and hide it from you. There’s no need to blame yourself, but it’s important to know that your child has been experiencing you in this way.
When a person begins to recover, they have to stop protecting their parents from their feelings. They have to start allowing their anger, frustration, jealousy, hurt, pettiness, cowardice, and all other negative emotions to surface without a buffer. It’s intense for you. It’s intense for them. But if they shut this down, they risk their recovery.
This is why your child feeling angry when recovering from an eating disorder is both normal and difficult.
Here are four ways parents can deal with a child who is expressing a lot of anger while in the eating disorder recovery process:
1. Don’t take it personally
No matter what your child says, you need to try and remember that you should not take their words personally. They may say awful, nasty things. And some of them may be true. But if you take their words personally, you will shut them down immediately.
Your child is learning to process in new ways, without their eating disorder behavior. They need you to be stronger than their words right now so that they can learn on their own how to do this without turning to restricting, binging, and purging. This is really not about you. It’s about them learning to do new things.
2. Don’t get defensive
Your child will probably call into question things you have done, things you said you would do, and things you didn’t do. They will do this a lot. It will hurt. But remember that this is not about roasting you on a spit. This is actually your child testing out ways to communicate without their disorder. It’s messy. It can hurt. It’s often a sign of healing.
Please don’t get defensive and tell them that something didn’t happen or that something had to happen the way it did. The “thing” is not the point. They are testing out the idea that someone who loves them can tolerate their pain. They want to feel held and accepted with their pain. Take a deep breath and ignore your deep desire to defend yourself.
3. Acknowledge and accept anger
Your child has anger. The only way they knew to process anger before was to make their body suffer. Now they are trying to learn to process anger in healthy ways. When they are processing anger with you, the best thing you can do is acknowledge and accept the anger without judgment.
Listen. Acknowledge what is said (acknowledgment is not the same as agreement). Validate them and tell them their feelings are important. Apologize if you did something wrong. Let them know that you wish they never had to suffer this pain, but that you believe they can handle it. Tell them you are here for them no matter what they say or do. Let them cry. Let them mourn. Let them rage. Feeling feelings, including anger, is important and healthy.
4. Let it be
It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to downright suck. You’re going to make mistakes and mess up in this process. Your child might say terrible things to you. But all you need to do is remember that each time your child brings up anger, it is part of eating disorder recovery. Your only job is to let it be. Allow their anger to exist in the world.
Many parents believe our job is to make pain and anger go away for our kids. We think we are supposed to fix things for them and make them better. But our children need us to just let their pain and anger exist in nature. Just like thorns on a rosebush, anger does not make them ugly. It is natural and part of all of us. Our children need to know they can be loved with their anger. They need to know this in order to recover. Just let it be.
A parents’ job during recovery is undeniably difficult. As a child learns new skills, their parents need to learn how to handle them. This is hard. Please get the support you need to be the parent your child needs during this time. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.