By Carly Poynter, AMFT, staff therapist
The holidays are a challenging time to navigate for most people. The holidays are even more challenging for those who struggle with their relationship with food. As we prepare for the holiday feasts and festivities, there are a few things to consider, especially when you have a child or other loved one with an eating disorder. While this list is not all-encompassing, it can serve as a thoughtful reminder to be aware of the challenges others may face this holiday season and some strategies to support them.
Ways to Support Your Loved One with An Eating Disorder
Plan ahead. With the holiday season ahead of us, the best thing we can do to support someone struggling with an eating disorder is to plan ahead. Planning ahead includes identifying what could be triggering for your child and developing strategies to deal with these triggers appropriately. Here are some common holiday triggers to consider: buffet-style eating and a surplus or different types of food, expectations from others, comments about food choices and appearance, comments about being overly full or eating too much, fasting for religious reasons, etc. One of the best ways to plan ahead is to talk to your child about what they are most worried about for the upcoming holidays.
Talk about the holidays and traditions that have been triggering in the past. Part of planning ahead is knowing and understanding what your child is anticipating to be anxiety-provoking. One way to identify potential triggers is to ask what was challenging about the holiday in previous years. While your child may be doing better or even be in recovery, holidays pose many challenges that your child may not have practiced in treatment yet. If any specific holiday foods are triggering, this is an excellent time to start practicing with these foods. Your child’s therapist or dietitian can help plan exposures to fear foods.
Ask what support your child needs from you or others. What does your child anticipate needing from you during the holiday season? The conversation about support is part of planning ahead. Some ways you can help support your child include: steering conversations away from talking about food and appearance, making a plate for them (if that help is needed), helping with coping skills before or after meals (discussed later), etc.
Model appropriate eating. There may be adults and other children around the dinner table who are engaging in dieting or disordered eating. Ensuring your child has a good role model will be helpful. Appropriate eating does not mean you have to eat exactly what your child is eating. Appropriate eating means honoring your hunger and fullness cues, choosing a variety of foods, and demonstrating enjoyment of your meal.
Provide distraction or additional support during or after meals. As discussed above, one of the most supportive things you can do is help your child cope effectively. It can be helpful to ask your child what coping skills work best and practice these skills before the holidays. Rather than rushing from one activity to the next, provide time for your child to regulate their emotions. Distraction can take many forms, so you can get creative and plan for things that will engage your child. Some of the best distractions include things that require extra mental efforts, such as a game of Scrabble or Bananagrams. Other distractions include watching movies or TV, playing with the family pet, board games, arts/crafts, etc.
Prepare other family members (and set up a family session if possible). Recovery takes the support of many people. While you, as a parent, may know the most about your child’s eating disorder and how to best support them, having others learn how to support your child can be helpful. Preparing other family members can include setting boundaries with specific conversational topics, such as diets and the appearance of others. It can also involve having others help support your child during or after meals or navigating other conversations that may be anxiety-provoking for your child. If your child is in treatment, this is a great time to request a family session to help plan ahead for the holidays and elicit extra support.
Have conversations when you notice eating disorder behavior. The holidays are challenging. You will likely notice increased anxiety or some eating-disordered behavior. While it may feel overwhelming to discuss these behaviors with your child in the moment, it is important to address them. To discuss behavior you are noticing, you should talk to your child away from the meal or anxiety-inducing situation (i.e., the meal, conversation, person, etc.) and then discuss what you are noticing and ask how you can help support them (or suggest a coping skill if your child is overwhelmed).
Things to Avoid Over the Holidays When Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder
Don’t make comments about appearance. It is never helpful to comment on your child’s appearance or the appearance of others. During this time of recovery, your child is likely hyper-fixated on their appearance and is likely engaging in social comparison more frequently. Due to the preoccupation with thoughts about body weight and shape, it is best to steer the conversation away from how someone looks. Instead of discussing appearance, you can model interest in other characteristics such as hobbies, school or work, or other passions of the person.
Don’t make negative comments about food or food choices. It can feel natural to say things like “I am so full,” “I overate,” “I can’t believe I had another piece of pie,” and other comments after eating. However, your child is listening and likely internalizing comments like this. It is important to note that when comments like this slip, you can correct them. Listen carefully for any comment like this. You can jump in quickly and say something like, “While I am full, I enjoyed my meal.” Alternatively, you could simply change your narrative to something more neutral.
Don’t expect your child to eat or try everything. While your child may be doing better or be in recovery, the
holidays or certain food served at the holidays are likely triggering. Your child should still eat their meal plan, but they should not be expected to try everything. Part of planning ahead can include discussing what their plate should look like based on their meal plan. If your child needs to eat before or away from the guests, arrange for that to happen to ensure they complete the meal.
Other Considerations When Supporting a Child With an Eating Disorder During the Holidays
- Your child should still follow their meal plan (i.e., 3 meals and 3 snacks). Some people engage in restriction before a holiday meal. Instead, ensure your child eats all meals and snacks as indicated by their meal plan. It can be helpful to discuss and meal plan with your child’s therapist and dietitian before the holidays.
- This holiday may not go perfectly. Spend time identifying what went well, and times you noticed that they used coping skills.
Holidays are stressful for most people. As a parent of a child with an eating disorder, ensure you also take time to engage in self-care.
If you have an eating disorder yourself, learn strategies to support yourself over the holiday.
Learn more about supporting your loved one with an eating disorder all through the year.