Eating Disorders: One Step Forward and Two Steps Back With My Child’s Anorexia and Bulimia

So your daughter takes a step forward in recovery and then two steps back. Why is that? When she eats more than she wants to or doesn’t over-exercise or purge, she may feel panic and anxiety. This can occur for multiple reasons.

It will feel to her like she is scared because she will gain weight. The running backward is the temptation to compensate for what she ate or for not running or purging. She will feel like she has to “undo” what she did until she can feel calm again.

Another possibility for her fear is because she broke the rules of the eating disorder. What happens in general when we break rules? It usually brings guilt.

When we have broken a “moral” rule, like telling a lie about someone, then guilt is appropriate. Food in and of itself is not a moral issue. It is an issue of fueling the body and survival. Rationally there is no reason for guilt if she eats.

The problem is she has turned eating and food into a moral issue and the rules she has set for herself cannot be kept indefinitely. She will only be able to starve herself, over-exercise or binge and purge for so long before her body betrays her. Her body can only take so much and then she will break the rules.

Ultimately she will feel overwhelmed with guilt and shame because she let herself down. She wasn’t able to defy the needs of her body and become its master. Her body’s need for survival wins and she feels like a failure. She believes she can’t even be a good anorexic or bulimic, how will she ever do anything else right?

Do you see why she might be afraid to feel all of this? How it is easier to not eat or perform her compensating behaviors because who can cope with so many destructive emotions at once? Let’s name the few we’ve talked about; guilt, shame, failure, weakness, overwhelmed, and disappointment. So she has learned to avoid these feelings by keeping the eating disorder rules as fully as possible.

The obvious question becomes how to help her deal with the anxiety and other destructive emotions that come with taking a step forward. One is helping her realize this is a normal part of the recovery process. Everyone who recovers goes through the one step forward, two steps back.

The important part for you the parent is not to panic and don’t criticize her for steps backward. Talk openly with her about the feelings she may experience when she makes progress and actually plan for it.

Brainstorm with her about things the two of you can do or the family can do when this happens. Not if it happens, but when. Normalize it and encourage her through it the best you can.

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