Like many things that were once easy, going to a birthday party when your child has an eating disorder gets a bit more complicated. An invitation to any large celebration such as a birthday party, which might have been welcome before diagnosis, can take a difficult turn when your child is working on eating disorder recovery.
First, a person who has an eating disorder is very sensitive to environmental stress. And although parties sound like so much fun, they also include loud noises, lots of people, and complicated interactions that can be hard for someone in recovery. On the other hand, a party may be an excellent motivation and distraction from the eating disorder. Both of these considerations should be taken into account.
The other major consideration when considering a birthday party with an eating disorder is thoughtless comments about food and body size. Unfortunately, friends and family members tend to make triggering comments about food and body size, including comments that are both unintentional and ignorant.
While your child heals, it is important for you to prepare for birthday parties and other food-based social events in advance and be prepared to address triggers as they come up.
Should you go?
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, carefully consider whether the birthday party is a good idea. Talk it through with your child’s treatment team. Whenever possible, avoid parties that are being hosted by someone you don’t know, or large events that will be full of many people who you and your child don’t know. These types of events can add far too much anxiety to a child who is already sensitive so you may want to make different plans.
If you do know the hosts and guests well, consider whether they are an appropriate environment for your child right now. Remember, your child’s eating disorder is a crisis now. But hopefully, in the future, it will cease to be a problem. Therefore, while you may need to sit some events out this year, there is hope that in the future that won’t be necessary.
Make a phone call
Depending on the stage of treatment, your child’s treatment team may suggest that you discuss your child’s eating disorder with the host in advance of a food-based event. One approach is to call the host and let them know what’s going on and give them a heads up that you may be acting a little differently at the party. Advance conversations, even with family members, can be a bit awkward. Here’s an example of a pre-party conversation:
Parent: Hi, Jane. I wanted to let you know that Sam is currently being treated for an eating disorder. It’s a bit complicated to go into right now, so I wanted to give you a heads-up before we come over to the birthday party next weekend.
Host: Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Why didn’t you tell me?
Parent: Thanks. Well, as I said, it’s a bit complicated, and we’re just doing our best to help her heal. Something I’ve had to learn is that a lot of things that we naturally say can be triggering for someone who has an eating disorder. For example, it can be hard when people mention Sam’s appearance – good or bad. Also, talking about dieting, stuffing yourself, or being “good” or “bad” with food can be really difficult. I just wanted to let you know in advance that I may try to avoid or redirect conversations if I see them going in that direction. I hope you understand.
Host: Oh, well, I guess so. Sure, that makes sense.
Parent: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it, and look forward to seeing you next weekend!
Remember that this conversation can be awkward for both sides. You are making a request that can make the host feel uncomfortable. Don’t expect too much. Instead, just remember that you’re all doing your best.
The host in the above situation doesn’t dig in for too much information or get defensive, but some people may push a bit harder. Don’t panic – just do your best.
Digging Host: Oh, well, I guess so. So what exactly is going on? Is Sam anorexic? Bulimic? What exactly is Sam doing?
Parent: Oh, thanks so much for asking. We’re working on everything with a therapist right now, and I’m just not really comfortable going into too much detail. I hope you understand.
Digging Host: Of course. But did Sam need to be hospitalized? Is Sam starving? How are you doing?
Parent: Well, I’m doing as well as I can right now. The most important thing is having friends who I can count on, so I’m really thankful that we had this conversation, and I can’t wait to see you at the birthday party!
Defensive Host: Well, we never talk about that kind of stuff. I’m not really sure what you mean.
Parent: Oh, I’m sure that’s true, and this is a bit of an awkward conversation for me. I hope you understand that I just wanted to let you know. I didn’t want to show up and take you by surprise.
Defensive Host: Oh, OK. Well, I can see that. OK – see you next weekend!
Prepare your child
Before you go to the party, make sure you talk to your child with their treatment team to prepare for triggering situations. Come up with some signals that your child can use if they become uncomfortable. Agree as a family whether you are willing to take two cars in case one of you needs to leave early with your child.
Before the event, talk to your child about social anxiety. Almost everyone gets some form of social anxiety before an event, and that is amplified when a child who has an eating disorder is going to a food-based event with lots of people. Your child may be concerned that people will be watching every morsel of food and analyzing whether they are “really sick” or “just looking for attention.”
Your child is vulnerable right now. Help them prepare for the event by working through some meditations or yoga poses together. Get grounded and help your child connect with their body. Do whatever you can to both address and decrease pre-party anxiety.
Prepare food for the whole family and eat together if possible before the party. Connect as a family, and remember that you are all a team working towards the goal of health, love, and belonging. This isn’t just for the child who has an eating disorder – this will benefit everyone.
It would be very unusual if there wasn’t a single mindless comment about food or body size during the party. However, a birthday party is rarely a good place to educate people about eating disorders. That is awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. Don’t go to the party ready to fight or teach people lessons. Just go in with the awareness that you will probably need to acknowledge and redirect mindless comments.
Your goal is to let your child know that you heard the statement and respond in a way that lets them know how you feel about it. Then move away from the conversation. Start a new topic, or simply walk away if you can.
Statement: Oh my gosh! I was so bad at lunch! I ate three tacos! No food for me tonight!
Parent’s response: Tacos are so delicious. Tammy and I are planning to get some tomorrow.
Statement: Wow! You’re eating fast! You must be hungry today!
Parent’s response: Yup! Food is good when you’re hungry.
Statement: Ugh! I ate too much! The diet starts tomorrow!
Parent’s response: Oh, well we all feel full sometimes, but it always passes.
Statement: What’s wrong? You aren’t eating anything.
Parent’s response: Oh, we’re all set, thanks!
Statement: You’re looking great! Have you lost weight?
Parent’s response: Oh, Joanie, it’s so great to see you – how have you been?
Statement: You’re so skinny! What’s your secret?
Parent’s response: Hey, Matt, how’s your new job going?
In the last two examples, it can feel very awkward to completely ignore someone’s statement, but the good thing is that parents often interrupt conversations when their children are involved. It’s good if you can blow the conversation in a totally different direction to take the focus off your child’s body. You and your child are never required to discuss their body size with anyone, no matter how awkward it feels.
After the party, take some time to decompress with your family. Anxiety was almost certainly triggered for all of you, so do some deep breathing exercises or take a gentle walk to reconnect and get grounded. If your child didn’t eat much at the party, prepare food and eat it together. If your child binged at the party, remind them that the feeling of fullness will pass, and sit with them supportively as it does.
Take some time as a family to review how the party was for everyone involved. Did things go smoothly? Do you think the party was a positive event for your child who has an eating disorder? Is there anything you could do in the future to make parties better/easier for all of you?
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.