Stephanie’s daughter Nova had been doing well in eating disorder recovery … until she started to gain more weight than she expected. “I feel like weight gain has thrown everything off,” says Stephanie. “I’m terrified we’re going straight back to where we started.”
It’s quite common for your child to gain weight in eating disorder recovery. Regardless of your child’s current or previous weight, recovery can result in weight gain. This is due to many factors, all of which can be explained and intellectually understood. But someone who has an eating disorder is typically terrified of weight gain. And while they may accept weight gain intellectually, at some point they may balk as the weight continues to come on.
Weight gain in eating disorder recovery
Weight gain is expected, and so is a negative reaction to weight gain. While eating disorders go much deeper than weight, weight stigma and fear of fat are a critical symptom.
When a child gains weight in eating disorder recovery, they may believe that recovery is bad or wrong. These feelings can reduce them to tears. When they go to put on a favorite outfit, an outfit that they remember as being loose, they may discover that it is too tight. Fear of weight gain is a normal and natural part of recovery, and the only way out is through.
Here are a few tips for parents who are supporting a child who gains weight in eating disorder recovery.
1. Accept your child’s weight
Your child probably hates the size of their body. 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 size.
You may be surprised by how much weight your child gains in eating disorder recovery. You may even be shocked and uncomfortable with it. Some people fluctuate up and down dramatically during eating disorder recovery. You may worry that your child is swinging too far.
We live in a fatphobic society, and your concerns about your child’s weight are understandable 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.
Take some time to learn about Health at Every Size, which can help put your fears to rest. The health impacts of having adipose tissue are small compared to the health impacts of an eating disorder.
Your child will sense if you are uncomfortable with their body. Even if you say nothing out loud, they know. This is an unfortunate fact of parenting. But it’s something we can work on. Notice every time you have a negative thought about your child’s weight, and change your mind.
Practice: first thought/second thought
You will probably have negative thoughts about your child’s body size. When that happens, notice the thought, and then change your mind.
For example, your first thought might be about how she looks: “she looks fat in those shorts!” Notice that thought, and replace it with something positive about how your child feels. “I’m so glad she’s feeling strong and healthy.” Alternatively, replace it with something positive about what their body does. “Her body is getting stronger every day.” This takes practice, but it’s essential in helping your child heal.
2. Trust your child’s body
Someone who has an eating disorder has learned to ignore feelings of hunger and satiety. An eating disorder requires a disconnection from the natural instinct to feed and move the body in healthy ways.
Eating disorder recovery includes reconnecting the mind and body. It involves building mind-body communication pathways. Someone in recovery must learn to trust a body that they have previously determined to be untrustworthy. This is hard.
Intuitive eating can be very helpful, but it is an advanced concept. Intuitive eating requires listening to the body and giving it what it needs. This is something that takes time to develop, especially for someone with an eating disorder.
As your child learns to trust their body, you can help by trusting their body. This goes against the cultural messages that tell us bodies must be controlled. But controlling the body resulted in an eating disorder for your child. It’s time to try something different.
Parents must trust their kids’ bodies, even when our kids don’t feel they are trustworthy. We must trust even when we are scared that our kids will get “too fat.” We can’t know whether they will fully recover, but we can trust that their bodies will try to survive.
Body trust-building statements
Here are some trust-building statements to say out loud to yourself, other family members and your child:
- If we listen to our bodies, they find balance.
- Our bodies are naturally self-regulating.
- It takes time to tune into how our bodies feel and what they want, and we’re working on it.
- We were born knowing how to eat, when to eat, how much 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.
3. Be prepared for the fallout of weight gain during eating disorder recovery
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 bodies gain weight in recovery, alarm bells ring. Eating disorders tell us that weight gain is very, very wrong. Your child will have to face weight gain in order to succeed in recovery. It’s not easy, since our society insists that weight gain is always bad. Be patient, and be prepared for messiness.
Your child may rage and scream. They may cry and mourn. Their body has become your child’s expression of self-worth. As their body changes, your child may feel worthless and unlovable.
These feelings not over-dramatized or exaggerated. Your child is truly hurting and mourning the loss of the eating disorder’s role in their life. The eating disorder was a valuable and important 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.
Feel the feelings
When your child gains weight during eating disorder recovery, they will have a lot of feelings. Don’t try to distract your child from the pain. Don’t try to take it away or tell them that it’s overblown. Listen to your child every time they want to talk about this. Let the pain come. It will pass. Help your child feel their feelings. The best thing a parent can do is to be present and supportive through their child’s feelings. Your ability to tolerate feelings will help your child learn to tolerate feelings.
Stephanie was relieved to realize how normal Nova’s reaction is. “I’m still scared, but now I feel like I know what I can do to help her. And I’m going to talk to her treatment team to see if there’s anything in particular they want us to work on at home.”
Navigating eating disorder recovery is challenging, but Stephanie’s got the right attitude, and she’s doing great!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.