When recovering from an eating disorder, it’s quite common to gain weight. Whether your child begins recovery in a body that is underweight, of “average” weight, or “over” weight, recovery requires a loosening of the food restriction that underlies almost every eating disorder. While your child learns to eat intuitively and feed their body what it needs, body weight will very likely fluctuate.
You should be prepared not only for weight gain, but also your child’s reaction to weight gain. While eating disorders go much deeper than weight, poor body image is a critical symptom. As long as your child struggles with their weight gain, you can assume that they are still struggling with their eating disorder. Your child’s treatment team will be working to help your child separate their sense of self-worth from their body size, but meanwhile, you’re at home, seeing your child suffer mightily with the consequences of recovery from an eating disorder.
Most of us perceive weight gain as a terrible, traumatic experience. As a result, when we gain weight, we may believe that our recovery is bad or wrong. 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. 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 in recovery for an eating disorder who is gaining weight.
Accept the size of your child
Your child probably hates the size of their 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 by how much weight your child gains in recovery. You may even be shocked and uncomfortable with it. Some people fluctuate up and down dramatically during eating disorder recovery. It is natural for you to worry that your child is swinging too far in any direction, but it is especially difficult for most parents to see their child gain 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. Remember that while the health impacts of having adipose tissue are small, the health impacts of an eating disorder are significant.
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. 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.” 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 in 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 healthy ways.
During eating disorder recovery we must reconnect the mind-body communication pathways, and this requires the person who has an eating disorder to learn to trust a body that they have 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.
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 fully recover, 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:
- 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.
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 has been using their body as a way to gain control over many messy things in life, and learning to trust and nourish their body feels deeply uncomfortable.
Your child may rage and scream. Your child may cry and mourn. The body became your child’s expression of self-worth. As the 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.
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. Don’t try to take it away. It will pass, but the best thing a parent can do is to be present and supportive through their child’s feelings. Your ability to tolerate the feelings will help your child learn to tolerate the feelings.