Tips for parents on how they can be sensitive to kids with eating
disorders during the holidays.
By Rebecca Wagner, PhD
The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone. Many of us have family visiting, or we are traveling to our loved ones or friends’ homes. Travel can get hectic with increased traffic on the roads and delays at airports….Not to mention the pressure of buying and giving gifts! This alone would be enough to cause anyone distress, but for someone with an eating disorder, it can be even more difficult.
Just imagine, you have all the stressors listed above, but then you also have large gatherings of people centered on food. For someone with an eating disorder, being around food can be excruciating. It does not matter whether the eating disorder is characterized by under-eating (Anorexia Nervosa), overeating (Binge Eating Disorder), or eating then purging (Bulimia Nervosa). The added pressure of copious amounts of food and lots of people can be unbearable.
People with eating disorders often feel self-conscious about eating in front of others. They fear other people are watching and judging them and what they eat. Consequently, they are so preoccupied with what others may be thinking that they cannot concentrate on connecting with family and friends, and just enjoy themselves. In addition, most holiday gatherings involve large amounts of food, many of which people with eating disorders would consider “bad” or “triggering” such as sweets and desserts. This can also be overwhelming and create additional distress for someone with an eating disorder.
Sometimes if you pay close attention, you may notice family members who struggle with disordered eating having increased difficulty during the holiday season. Eating disorder behaviors, such as binge eating, restricting, and purging, may worsen and your loved one may isolate more due to feelings of being overwhelmed and ashamed.
Take the focus off food.
If you know someone with an eating disorder, there are many ways you can support them throughout the holiday season. First of all, aren’t the holidays really meant to be about spending quality time with people you love? That said, take the focus off food and place it on connection with family and friends. Plan events that do not involve food that instead strengthen our relationships with others. This can be playing games, going for a walk, going to the movies, or recollecting past enjoyable memories, to mention a few. Give people options of non-food related activities and invite people to make their own suggestions!
Another suggestion is recognizing that being overwhelmed is normal – I’m sure you can relate to this. Therefore, be sensitive if your loved one with an eating disorder needs to skip some activities because they need a break and would benefit from some self-care. Being over-booked without time to relax and reflect only adds to the distress, so be patient, tolerant, and flexible if someone needs some time away from the activities.
Lastly, be mindful about comments made around someone with an eating disorder. As mentioned above, they are already hypersensitive to what others think of them, so when someone comments about the amount of food on their plate, or the latest diet they went on, or how someone looks, these all create more distress for someone with an eating disorder. I suggest you stay away from excessive talk about food, weight/body image, dieting, or anything else you think could be triggering for your loved one. Instead, focus on strengths and things that you appreciate about one another.
As the holidays are fast approaching, it is important that you have a plan for the holiday season that is sensitive to the struggles of your loved one with an eating disorder. Talk with him or her and ask their opinion on what would be most helpful for them. Encourage them and engage people who are supportive of their recovery – including yourself and their treaters – during this difficult time. And, remember to focus on what the holidays should really be about: your love and appreciation of one another.
Rebecca Wagner, Ph.D. is the Clinical Director at Eating Recovery Center, Houston, a great local resource with renowned experts and medical care based off of the latest scientific information. If you think you might have an eating disorder, you can take an online quiz at eatingrecovery.com. You can also find out how to get a free, confidential assessment from a Masters-level clinician.