The holidays are typically a stressful time, and it can be even harder to handle with an eating disorder. It could seem like a total disaster, or you could look at this as an opportunity to do things differently.
Our kids thrive in a close and connected family. And isn’t that what the holidays are supposed to be about? These tips are designed to help you achieve closer family connections. So you’ll find that what I’m recommending will help everyone in the family – including you – have a more meaningful, less stressful holiday.
1. Focus on feeding and rest
The first and most important thing when your child has an eating disorder is that you need to manage feeding schedules as much as possible. While we would all like to relax during the holidays, when there’s an eating disorder to contend with, we really can’t let up on feeding regularly and adequately.
You may have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. All our best, most beautiful plans for the holidays will be derailed if our children’s basic needs are not being met. A child’s basic need for food and rest are both disrupted by an eating disorder, and the holidays will make them even harder to handle. So feeding and rest should be a top priority.
Plan ahead to make sure you have easy, low-stress meals and snacks on hand, and keep to a regular schedule of eating. If there’s a big event that you’re all attending, make sure you feed your child before and after the event.
Prioritize regular bedtimes and plenty of downtime and rest during the day. Our culture glorifies the idea of rushing around during the holidays, trying to cram in everything, and running ourselves ragged. But it’s far better to prioritize rest so you can truly enjoy the meaningful moments when they happen. Slow down and take a mindful approach to the holidays. Less is truly more.
2. Prioritize connection
Once you have figured out the basic needs, you can move up the scale a little bit and focus on belonging and love needs. These needs are met in moments of connection and intimacy with our families. This can take you from managing to “handle” the holidays with an eating disorder to actually enjoying them.
Most of the stress of the holiday season comes from misguided attempts at connection. Rigid traditions that everyone feels obligated to perform are meant to connect, but fail. True belonging comes from authentically enjoying yourself with others. So this year, focus on the things that build connection and let go of the things that don’t.
Traditions build belonging. But they should be regularly evaluated to make sure they’re still doing their job. Create two columns on a piece of paper and write down all the traditions that you typically follow during the holidays on the left side. Now on the right side write down whether these traditions build emotional connections and intimacy.
It’s not enough to do something because you’ve always done it. Hold your traditions to higher standards and ask: will this build belonging?
If you have a great list of strong traditions that build connections, great! If not, that’s OK! You can try some new traditions this year. Here are some options for connecting that you can consider for your family:
Ways to connect with family
- Walk: go for a casual walk outdoors and play a game like “I Spy.”
- Drive: travel to a beautiful spot in nature and bring a big blanket and hot drinks to share.
- Art: get a large piece of paper and different pens and pencils and co-create a “piece of art.”
- Get Closer: play a game like Where Should We Begin to learn about each other and build intimacy.
- Listen: ask each person to suggest a song that represents the past year. Create a playlist and try to guess who chose which song.
- Dance: designate a DJ or just pick a playlist, clear out the furniture, and have a dance party.
- Sit: light (or turn on) a fire, pile the blankets and pillows on the floor, and sit together reading, listening to music or an audiobook, or doing nothing.
- Make: buy packaged gingerbread house kits and make bizarre gingerbread houses that you would never find in a magazine.
Tip #1: keep these activities short. To optimize the chances of everyone having fun, limit the time you plan for any activity. Let people drift away if they get bored and keep the fun going for the people who want to.
Tip #2: have low expectations. Don’t insist on any activity being magical. Stay loose and be flexible and open to failure. Rigidity isn’t fun.
To handle the holidays with an eating disorder, give yourself the space to reimagine them through an entirely new lens. Ask yourself: am I doing this because we’ve always done it, or am I doing this because it makes us feel connected to each other? Double down on the things that add connection, and drop the rest. You’ll have more time and space and reduce everyone’s stress levels.
3. Know the triggers
If you have large extended family gatherings, then you need to plan ahead. Many of us have magical thinking when it comes to holidays. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we build an image in our head of calm, cozy holidays spent in loving connection with our extended family.
In this magical dreamland, we fail to prepare ourselves for the realities of our family dynamics.
The way to handle the holidays with an eating disorder is to make sure you have been ruthlessly honest about the most likely triggers your child will face during family events.
Get a piece of paper and list all the inappropriate or uncomfortable statements and situations around food and body issues that you can think of.
Common family eating disorder triggers:
- Aunt Bertha likes to talk about what she can and cannot eat on her current diet
- Grandpa makes comments about what’s on other people’s plates
- Uncle Jerome is a personal trainer and always talks about “personal goals” and “burn it to earn it.”
- Grandma will pressure everyone to eat more
- Cousin Pat will stare at your child and ask why they’re so _____________.
You need to know the potential triggers to have any hope of navigating them gracefully. Most of us don’t prepare and then react and don’t feel great about it. Then we may spend hours after family events reviewing what we said or didn’t say. Flip that around and invest the time up-front to think about what might go wrong so you’re not blindsided.
4. Set boundaries
Once you have your list of triggers, you can come up with boundaries and responses. Here are some boundaries I recommend every family sets during the holidays when dealing with an eating disorder (or actually anytime!):
- No talking about weight or bodies (positively or negatively), like:
- You have an amazing metabolism and can eat whatever you want
- Have you gained weight?
- My doctor says I need to lose weight for my health
- You look so skinny!
- She is always watching her figure – and it shows!
- I’m concerned about your weight because I worry about your health
- No talking about what people are eating (positively or negatively), like:
- Wow – that plate is really full!
- I can’t eat that – I’m being good today
- She eats like a horse and doesn’t gain an ounce
- I’ve been eating keto and feel 100x better now
- Have a piece of this – I made it just for you!
- Are you sure you want seconds?
If you are faced with a boundary violation in real-time, it’s best if you say something at the moment to redirect the conversation and protect your child from additional triggers.
Good responses for boundary violations:
- I know you’re trying to help, but we’ve got this, thanks!
- Let’s talk about something else now
- I know how important this is to you, but we don’t talk about people’s weight
- Did you know we’re going to Hawaii next week?
- Can we talk about something else?
- We don’t talk about what people weigh/eat
- I’d rather you didn’t say things like that
- Eyes on your own plate!
- Did you see Aunt Lena’s new clogs? They’re wild!
If boundaries are repeatedly violated and/or you can sense that your child is becoming distressed, it’s OK to take a break from the party or leave altogether. Your child’s emotional safety is your priority, so while it can be awkward, it is within your role as a parent to make that decision.
Remember that everyone has a right to do what they want to do. And there are often consequences. For example, Uncle Jim has a right to talk about his diet, and you have a right to ask him to stop and/or leave the conversation if you want to. The less you make it about controlling Uncle Jim and the more you make it about choosing your responses, the better it will feel for everyone.
5. Check in on your child
Once the holidays begin it can be hard to slow down. But remember that stress is like a snowball that rolls and grows if not interrupted. Check in with your child every day to gauge how things are going. What is their stress level? How are they feeling? Are their eating disorder behaviors getting worse?
If your child is becoming stressed, consider changing your plans for the day or even the whole week. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy, your child’s physiological needs must be met for them to find any level of comfort and enjoyment this holiday. Are they getting enough sleep? Enough food?
If stress is a problem, learn emotional co-regulation skills so you can help bring your child into an emotionally regulated spot before any holiday events. This is a skill every parent who has a child with an eating disorder should learn. Check out this eBook for help.
6. Embrace the mess
Finally, embrace the mess of the holidays. You’re doing your best. Your best is enough. No holiday is perfect, and it doesn’t need to be perfect. When parents strive for perfection they usually add to the stress. So relax. Be kind to yourself. And remember that this is a short period of time in a lifetime of love and connection with your child.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.