Holidays can be a tricky time of year for everyone. Family obligations, work parties where you’re forced to socialize with coworkers you barely know and a million other holiday-related activities—it’s a lot to ask of most of us. But, when you’re a teenager with an eating disorder there’s an added layer of anxiety because so much of holiday celebrations revolve around food. If you’re a parent of a child with an eating disorder, navigating the holiday landmines with them feels like a job requiring special forces training.
Eating disorder help during the holiday season
I won’t tell you it can be easy if you just follow these simple steps—the truth is, it will probably be difficult—but there are things you can do to try to make it a little less sucky for everyone. (We try to keep expectations realistic around here.)
The main thing to do is plan ahead. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sit down together, go through your family calendar, and figure out a game plan for each event. And—this is a real power move—I suggest crossing things off your list that: A) you’re dreading, B) you don’t have to do or C) would create more negative than positive outcomes.
I’m giving you permission. You literally do not have to do these things. If it’s going to reduce the stress for your child and you, it is one-million-percent worth it.
So you’ve narrowed down your list to those absolutely essential and looking-forward-to events. Now talk through some of the potential challenges with each. Common pitfalls include insensitive or ignorant comments people make about weight or food; figuring out how to meet their meal plan exchanges at a party; and what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
Here are some strategies for dealing with each.
Set expectations for an appropriate conversation ahead of time
Will there be people there who might (or will definitely) make insensitive comments about food or weight? If they are family members or friends who you have a relationship with, talk with them ahead of time and let them know that certain things are unhelpful and triggering for your child right now (give them specific examples—a lot of people genuinely don’t know).
Ask them to avoid those types of conversations or topics as a way to support your child in their recovery. If you don’t have a relationship with the people you might be around, think about whether you need to go to this event at all. If you do, create an escape plan.
Create an escape plan
Ask your child about their concerns for each holiday event you’re scheduled to attend, and help them be specific about what they’re most worried about. Then create a plan for if they need to leave the table or a specific area for a break, or leave the event altogether.
You might agree on a code word or signal that indicates they need to remove themselves from the situation. Talk about the conditions under which they might need to leave and prepare what you will tell the host in advance.
Assign a support person
If the holiday event is one where you’ll be sitting at a table with family or friends, decide who will sit next to them. Maybe mom and dad will sit on either side of them to create a protective barrier from others who might say or do something triggering to them.
If it’s more of a mingling event, plan for who will be with your child as a support the whole time. This can involve parents switching off as needed, but talk to your child about what would feel most supportive to them in advance, and craft your plan around that.
Figure out their eating plan
Food is an obvious concern when your child has an eating disorder, and the rich and sweet foods that usually accompany holiday events can present even greater challenges for them. To ensure they stay on track, go over their meal plan and figure out how the timing of the event lines up with their scheduled meals or snacks. Think about what kind of foods may be at the event and which ones will help them meet their exchanges for that time period.
Keep in mind, there is flexibility here, so don’t stress out about getting in all the exchanges at the party or dinner. Support your child in doing the best they can, and let them know in advance that if they don’t get all their exchanges at the holiday function, they’ll just make them up when you get home. Since they are most likely already anxious, there’s no need to add to it by insisting they get all their exchanges in a challenging environment.
Be flexible and try to have fun
It can feel impossible to consider fun when facing all the potential challenges a holiday event poses for your child, but your advanced planning can help ease some of their anxiety, and it’s worth suggesting that they might actually enjoy part of it. And let them know that it’s okay if everything doesn’t go perfectly—that’s life.
So long as your child knows you’re there to support them, you’ve made a plan to get through it as best as possible, and they can have a fresh start at any time, you might actually feel like your family can survive the holidays… and even have some fun in the process.
By: Meredith Watkins, M.A., MFT