By Oona Hanson
When you’re caring for someone with an eating disorder, trying to find the right words can feel like navigating a minefield. Language becomes so complicated because what we think might be helpful can end up backfiring–often because the malnourished brain interprets our words in a way that fuels or serves the eating disorder. As Emily Boring writes so powerfully: “everything you say to someone with an eating disorder gets processed through a highly selective, single-minded filter.”
There is a word I often hear in the context of eating disorder treatment, and it’s one I invite people to consider more closely: “extra.”
This little word can send a mixed message–or even inadvertently collude with the eating disorder–making the recovery process harder for everyone.
“Extra” comes up primarily around food and weight, two of the toughest topics to discuss in the context of eating disorder recovery. Some examples:
“Since you have practice today, remember to bring an extra snack.”
“My kid is doing so much better ever since they gained an extra X pounds.”
“If you don’t finish your lunch, you’ll need to have some extra food at dinner.”
You can probably already hear why this word can be problematic: “extra” implies something that is an optional add-on, more than what is needed. In the examples above, are any of those things truly extra?
If activity increases someone’s energy needs, there is nothing “extra” about that refueling snack; it’s essential.
If a certain amount of weight gives a child relief from their eating disorder symptoms, there’s nothing “extra” about it; it’s vital.
If the nutrition in a meal accounts for a deficit from earlier in the day, there is nothing “extra” about that food; it’s necessary.
The eating disorder already has rules about the “right” amount and has intense fears of going “over.” Since the word “extra” implies excess, an eating disorder hears that this food or weight isn’t just optional–it’s most definitely too much.
The notion that eating or weight gain might be wrong or up for debate often catalyzes an eating disorder’s keen negotiating skills, arguing to opt out of anything “extra” and to advocate for less…and less.
So what to say instead? We can adjust our language to be clear, direct, and matter-of-fact:
“Since you have practice today, what are you bringing for your sport snack?”
“My kid is in stronger recovery ever since they gained enough weight.”
“I saw that lunch was tough earlier. I’ll make sure you get what you need today.”
So you might be ready never to say this word again. But “extra” isn’t all bad. In fact, there may come a point in your loved one’s treatment when you might lean into the notion of “extra”–-this time in a way that bolsters recovery.
The Latin root of “extra” means “outside,” as in beyond a boundary. Helping a child heal from an eating disorder requires pushing past rigid boundaries that have confined and limited them–including even their recovery meal plan. Challenging rigidity, rules, and black-and-white thinking can help your child find a deeper, fuller recovery.
Let’s say they have completed their meal and would like another helping or another serving of dessert. The eating disorder might be screaming at them not to go “over” their usual portions. Your child might even say, “I want more, but that’s too much. Can we deduct that amount from tomorrow since I’m having extra now?” Here is a moment when you might support them by saying, “Of course you can have more. It’s okay to have extra. And we don’t need to do any subtraction tomorrow.”
Supporting a child to meet their energy needs is step one to healing from an eating disorder. Allowing them to cling too tightly to a meal plan or calorie prescription, however, can keep them stuck in a kind of partial recovery. So when it feels right, you might experiment with how they handle having an “extra” cookie or an “extra” helping (when it is truly “extra” and not part of their basic nutrition requirements). Challenging the internal eating disorder calculator can be scary, but it’s so important. Our kids need to know it’s okay to have more, to be more.
And that brings us to the popular slang use of the word “extra,” meaning “over the top.” The eating disorder often wants to make our kids smaller, quieter, less demanding, almost invisible, without needs. They might be vulnerable to putting their true self and desires aside in order to fit in and please people. So allowing them to be “extra” could be a great thing–to be louder, bolder, to take up space.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that adolescents in recovery are often making up for lost time in terms of developmental stages of experimentation, identity exploration, and even plain old fun. You might see blue hair, ever-changing fashion looks, surprising tastes in music, a flair for the dramatic. If the eating disorder put their emotions on mute for a while, now those feelings might be coming through a megaphone. A pent-up need for personal expression, creativity, and joy might very well come across as being exuberant, flamboyant, maybe “uncool.” A bit, shall we say, extra.
Celebrating our loved one becoming full of life again isn’t always easy. You might even miss the “sweet little kid” who never used to color outside the lines. But accepting a budding rebellious, don’t-fence-me-in streak can help our kids protest the eating disorder’s continued efforts to confine them.
Breaking the eating disorder’s rules–not just about food but about how to be in the world–can unlock an even more robust recovery. In addition to making sure they have enough, we can encourage them to have and be “extra,” giving our kids the freedom to become their full, authentic selves.
Thank you. It makes a lot of sense and is very useful.
A wonderful reframe of language and how to support our kids.
The rewording is exhaustive and never ending once you start and can perpetuate greater OCD
Others outside family will never reword, the tv, media etc – must learn to live with it as the edits become another crutch
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.
I feel strongly that our language can affect the way we think and act, and sometimes subtle shifts in our language can help us make great strides in supporting our loved one’s recovery.
We don’t want to walk on eggshells around the ED, of course, and as they move forward in their recovery, we must support them in building resilience to the cultural messages that might sound *a lot* like their ED.
Thanks! I loved the suggestions. And also the part about the emotions coming back with a megaphone…
Wow, Oona! This was a great piece! I never thought about extra as both harmful in that it colludes with the ED (ie extra food, extra weight) and extra in the way of deserving to take up space and live large. I will be making some changes in my use of the word extra for my daughter and myself. And I am going to view her blossoming young adult self and some of her extra ways as a welcome gift of her being alive!
I was just given this site as a reference from my daughter’s therapist as we are going through this journey. I am so glad I found this article because I am learning the impact of choosing the right words. Words are so important and how they are framed. while I am learning not to use calories, weight, good foods and bad foods etc. I have never thought about the word “extra”. Thank you so much for making me aware. I just want to be the best mom and support I can be for my daughter but it is so hard to know what to say or just as importantly not say.