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Thanksgiving can be hard on kids who have eating disorders – tips for parents to make it easier

by Colleen Reichmann, Psy.D.

Thanksgiving can be a difficult time for children who are struggling with eating disorders. This is a holiday focused almost solely on food-quite a difficult day to endure for someone that struggles with an illness that centers on food.

For this reason, it is ideal to begin prepping your child ahead of time. Talk with your child about how you will support them throughout the entire week of Thanksgiving. Game plan with them. Discuss the types of food that will be served. Attempt to alleviate any anxiety by taking the power away from the food. If your child is following a meal plan, discuss how the meals of the day will align with the meal plan (and make sure that they do).

Here are some other recommendations:

Consider the Size of Thanksgiving This Year

As a parent, it will be up to you to assess how much your child will be able to mentally tolerate. If he or she is really struggling right now, this year may not be the time to do the big celebration with 30+ family and friends. Rather, it may be best to have a quiet day a home, and celebrate in a manner that is more supportive of your child’s recovery.

However, if you decide to do this, be aware that oftentimes children will express guilt if the tradition that you normally follow is to have the big family get-together. Make sure that you reassure your child that you have many years ahead to get together with your family and friends. Assure him or her that the day will be special, just as it is, because you will make it special.

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

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Take the Power Away from the Food

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, try to take the power away from the food. Discuss the concept of gratitude. Try implementing this into your daily practice with your child leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Talk about one thing each day that you are each grateful for. Consider writing these down and tying them around a “gratitude tree.” Traditions such as these will be comforting for your child, because they will allow him or her to celebrate the holiday in a manner that does not involve food.

Also, avoid situations in which people are talking about “stuffing themselves” or “being bad” on Thanksgiving. Carefully monitor media and social experiences to avoid as much of this talk as possible.

Avoid Stress at Other People’s Houses

If you are leaving your house for Thanksgiving, ask about the food that will be served in advance, so that you can work with your child on any meal planning that needs to take place.

Talk to the hosts about avoiding the diet (or anti-diet) chatter mentioned above. Encourage them to avoid the topic of eating disorders and weight gain or loss altogether. Ask them to focus on the spirit of the day instead – giving thanks! Explain that this illness and the experience that you child is struggling with is quite difficult to understand, but that you appreciate any and all empathy that they will demonstrate.

colleen Reichmann psyd

Colleen Reichmann, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of individuals with eating disorders and body image issues. She has worked at various inpatient eating disorder treatment facilities, and is the blog manager for Project HEAL. She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and golden doodle and currently works at a group practice.

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