A Family-Based Treatment (FBT)-approach
Halloween can be scary for teens with eating disorders for the wrong reason: the candy! Most teens with eating disorders are only willing to eat a restricted range of foods. Expanding this range is an important goal of treatment, with the reintroduction of fear foods being a key step. Candy tends to be high on the fear food lists of many teens.
Halloween presents an ideal opportunity for families who are working with an FBT approach.
A Taste of Recovery
Most teens in America are excited about Halloween and its bounty of candy. By incorporating some candy during your teen’s Halloween week you can help them approximate the lives of teens who do not have eating disorders. This step can give them a taste of the full life you want for them—a life where they are unencumbered by food restrictions, a life where they can enjoy all foods, a life where they can travel the world confident that they will easily be able to meet their nutritional needs, and a life where they won’t feel the need to shun social events for fear of facing the foods there.
I know that I’m painting a beautiful picture and that this is easier said than done. Teens with eating disorders will deny that the disorder is driving their food preferences. Instead, they claim they simply don’t like candy anymore. Or that candy was the preference of a child and since then their palates have matured. But don’t believe them—you have crucial parental memory and knowledge. You know which foods your teen liked a few years back. You also probably know the foods on which he or she binged if they binged. And it is not credible that any teen truly hates all candy!
Especially if your teen has had many fear foods, you may already have experience reintroducing some of them. But once meals start going more smoothly, some weight has been restored, and binges and purges have subsided, many parents are reluctant to push further. Why rock the boat when your teen seems to be doing well? You may be wondering: Is candy really necessary?
In fact, this Halloween is exactly the right time to introduce candy.
Exposure With Candy
It is much easier to introduce fear foods before your teen is completely independent in their eating. Right now, you are still overseeing meals and your teen does not yet have their independent life back. Pushing the issue of fear foods becomes more challenging when your teen has regained most of their freedom.
When you introduce fear foods to your teen, you will probably feel anxious. Your teen will too. You may even feel like you are going back a step. This is how exposure works—it is supposed to raise your teen’s anxiety. When your teen avoids these fear foods, their anxiety decreases, reinforcing the avoidant behavior and justifying the anxiety response. This perpetuates both the emotion and the behavior. But the food is not truly dangerous—if the teen were to eat the food, they would learn that nothing catastrophic happens. In exposure, the teen is required to eat the food, and the anxiety response shows itself to be baseless. With repeated exposure, the brain habituates, learns that the food is not harmful, and loses the anxiety response. And the teen learns they can cope with that situation and likely similar situations.
Exposure works through repetition over a sustained period of time—not all at once. It’s likely that each food on your teen’s feared list will need to be presented several times before the thought of eating it no longer causes extreme anxiety.
You may feel that requiring your teen to eat candy is extreme. However, remember: the non-eating disordered part of your teen probably wants to eat candy, but the eating disorder would beat them up if they ate it willingly. By requiring your teen to eat candy, you are actually granting your teen permission to eat it—permission they are unable to grant themselves. After recovery, many teens report that they really wanted the fear food but were too afraid—it was only when their parents made them eat it that they were able to.
And I would argue that fearlessness in the face of candy is important for your child. So be brave about facing potentially increased resistance by your teen and model facing your own fear.
Here’s How to Incorporate Candy During Halloween
- Choose a few types of candy based on your teen’s preferences about three years before they developed their eating disorder. (If you can’t remember, ask one of their siblings or just pick a few options, maybe one chocolate-based and a non-chocolate alternative.) Make your choice based on providing your teen with the typical American teen experience. (American teens will typically collect a lot of candy on Halloween, have a few pieces that night, and then have candy as snacks a few times during the following week.)
- You may choose to tell your teen about the candy ahead of time or not. Some families find that telling teens about exposure to fear foods ahead of time is helpful; other families find that it is better to just present a fear food without warning. But note that you are not required to ask their permission; FBT is a parent-driven treatment.
- Serve a single serving of candy during dessert or snack a few times during the week of Halloween. Plan carefully and be thoughtful. Do this with the same resolve that you use when you serve them any starches or proteins. You may want to introduce the candy on a day when you feel more confident, will have more time to manage potential resistance, or can be sure a second caregiver will be present. You may not want to present candy, or any fear food, before an event that you are not willing to miss in case you encounter an extreme reaction.
- If your teen binges or purges, make sure to sit with them for an hour after they eat the candy.
- Plan for what will happen if your teen refuses to eat the candy. For example, will you offer something else instead and try the candy again tomorrow? Offer a reward for eating the candy? Create a consequence for non-completion? Whatever you decide, be consistent and follow through.
If you do this this year, there is a good chance that by next Halloween your teen will be eating candy independently!