Taking a vacation with an eating disorder in the family can be a challenge, but it is also entirely possible with a little bit of planning. First things first, here are a few fundamentals to consider:
1. Take into account the timing of your trip. If your child is in early recovery, you may need to reschedule. 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.
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, 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. Plan ahead to optimize the food environment on the trip. 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. 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 nutritionist, they should be able to help you work through this topic before the trip.
Once you have covered the basics, here are some other steps you can take to prepare for maximum enjoyment on your vacation.
Eating disorders are maladaptive coping mechanisms that people develop as a way to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. 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 and lengthy decision-making discussions about each day’s activities.
Family trips are notorious stress-causers, 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 advance-planning actually makes family vacations more pleasant for everyone.
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.
The week before the vacation, take some time each day to relax mindfully. Some of us find mindful relaxation in the form of a short run, yoga, a walk outside, or, of course, a bubble bath. Whatever you enjoy, take the time to do it. But try to spend at least 10 minutes relaxing your body, mind, and spirit every day before the trip.
During the vacation, squeeze in 10 mindful breaths a few times a day. These can happen anytime and anywhere. Just close your eyes and gently breathe in and out ten times. One method is to begin with your hands closed lightly on your lap, and, with each out-breath, release one finger, going from your left pinkie to your right. You can do this almost anywhere, and it’s an excellent way to center yourself during the craziness of vacationing.
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. Rather than taking things personally or getting angry about snafus, which will put a pall over the whole group, 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 make 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.