Taking a vacation with a child who has an eating disorder can be a challenge, but it is also entirely possible with a little bit of planning. Here are a few fundamentals to consider:
1. Take into account the timing of your trip
If your child is in early eating disorder recovery, you may need to reschedule your vacation plans. It’s not fair, but it’s still necessary. Remember that your child has a serious disorder that deserves treatment as much as if they had a physical condition such as a broken leg or even cancer.
If your child were undergoing chemotherapy, you would probably reschedule your vacation. Once your child’s cancer is in remission, then a vacation could be a wonderful way to celebrate together. Eating disorders are serious conditions and it takes time and patience to recover.
Check with your child’s therapy team to make sure your child is stable enough to travel.
⚠️ If travel is absolutely necessary and your child is medically unstable, then you need to make sure you have a medical emergency plan in place. Work with your child’s medical team to get all the information and supplies you need in case of a medical emergency. And make sure you have information about the nearest hospital and know how to contact emergency services wherever you are. Consider getting medevac insurance if you are traveling outside of the country in the event that your child needs to be returned to your home country under medical care. ⚠️
2. Consider the clothing situation
If you are going to a tropical beach or a location in which your child will be expected to wear very little clothing and will be exposed to people showing off their bodies, you may want to reconsider. Eating disorder recovery is a delicate time in terms of body image. Not only can it be hard for someone who has an eating disorder to fully relax in bathing-suit-oriented locations, but it can also be triggering to see other bodies in bathing suits. This year’s vacation may be better if it involves mostly fully-clothed activities and locations in which other bodies are not on display.
3. Think about the food situation
If your child has an eating disorder, you need to optimize the food environment on your vacation. Find out as much as possible about the food situation, and talk to your child and their treatment team about menus and food planning. You need to have snacks available and plan out meals to minimize stress around eating. As you plan, keep in mind any food aversions your child has. If your child has an aversion to meat right now, then avoid the steakhouse where they carve the meat off a spit at the table. And if your child is only comfortable eating certain foods, then take note of whether those foods will be available during the trip. If your child is working with a dietitian, they should be able to help you work through this topic before the trip.
⚠️ If your child is still highly resistant to eating regular meals and snacks and eating and meals are a major issue, or if your child is still purging, then reconsider your trip. A vacation is not a good place to do early eating disorder recovery, and the entire trip could be derailed by eating disorder behaviors. Think carefully about whether now is the right time to travel. ⚠️
4. Plan ahead
While vacations can be a lot of fun, they can also cause a lot of stress, even for family members who do not have eating disorders. If you’re going on a vacation with a child who has an eating disorder then you need to double down on the details to avoid stress during the trip.
First, try to organize as much as possible in advance. You want to minimize surprises that may throw the group’s stress levels into high gear. You also want to minimize the angst caused by wondering every single night where you’re going to eat dinner. Planning ahead will help you avoid stressful day-of decision-making about what to do (if anything).
Family trips are notorious for causing stress. So you want to create a firm plan in advance that everyone can agree to, and then stick to it as much as possible. No surprise visits from Aunt Mary, no spontaneous 15-mile-hikes into the great unknown, and no sudden changes of venue.
Create and share your schedule so that everyone feels they know what is going on each day. The more information you have available, the better you can alleviate anxiety during the trip. It takes effort, but this sort of advanced planning actually makes family vacations more pleasant for everyone.
5. Un-stress yourself
One of the most important things you can do as a parent who has a child who has an eating disorder is to make sure that you are not stressed. All parents know that vacationing with the family is not actually very relaxing most of the time. We often find ourselves running ragged, trying to meet everyone’s needs. And with a child who is recovering from an eating disorder, you will be even more taxed than usual. This doesn’t mean the vacation is going to be terrible. But it does mean that you should go into it with open eyes and an open heart.
If you are already burnt out by your parenting responsibilities, then consider how best to care for yourself. The week before the vacation, take some time each day to relax mindfully. Don’t turn to fake relaxants like scrolling through your phone with a large glass of wine. You need purposeful relaxation, which usually involves disengaging from email and social media and one or more of the following:
- Moving your body for pleasure
- Being outside
- Breathing mindfully
- Talking to a good friend, therapist, or coach
Invest at least 10 minutes to relax your body, mind, and spirit every day before the trip. This will mean you are well-rested and have the energy you need to navigate a vacation with an eating disorder.
During the vacation, squeeze in 10 mindful minutes each day. You can do a 10-minute guided meditation, go for a gentle (solo) walk outside, or soak in the hot tub (without your family). You need time to center yourself!
6. Roll with the punches
While you’re on vacation with your family, any number of things can and will go wrong. Whether it’s a missing rental car, inadequate food, or just a stubbed toe or missing sunglasses, things always go wrong on family vacations.
Just because you planned everything in advance does not mean that everything will go perfectly, so release that fantasy. Nobody – absolutely nobody – has an Instagram-worthy vacation every minute of their vacation.
The best approach is to roll with the punches and go with the flow. Try not to take things personally or get angry about snafus. This will put a pall over the whole group, so solve the problem as best you can. And then, once everyone is settled again, talk about the misstep, blow-up, or argument lightly and with humor. Some families even enjoy documenting these moments and making a game of retelling vacation horror stories with much hilarity. This is an excellent bonding activity as long as nobody is taking the mistakes personally.
Stuff happens. No vacation is perfect. No parent can plan for every possibility on vacations. The point is not perfection – it’s having fun together and enjoying each other.
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.