This is an interview in which Ginny Jones, founder of More-Love.org, shares her thoughts on how families can cope with family traditions when there’s an eating disorder in the family.
1. Why might the winter holidays be particularly difficult for individuals affected by eating disorders? What types of challenges might arise in the next few months?
I think the biggest issue is that many families focus on food-based activities for the holidays. And I get it: it makes sense to do things like sip hot cocoa, bake cookies, and gather around a meal. A lot of family traditions focus on food, but that can be hard when there’s an eating disorder in the family.
So I would look carefully at all the family traditions that we’re used to and consider whether there are ways we can make adjustments for the eating disorder. I like to focus on building connections and belonging without food being the central actor.
When a person has an eating disorder, food-centered activities can be unpleasant. So rethink: can we switch things up? Maybe instead of making cookies, you can play a game. Instead of talking about food, you can talk about what you’re grateful for.
2. What are some factors that families should consider as they think about to what extent they should participate in different traditions and celebrations this year?
I think you really need to plan ahead and think carefully about what you usually do and the state of your family right now. If someone is facing an eating disorder, that means they are in a tough place. And you probably are, too. So I would ask: what are the essentials? What will bring us together? What will feel good? And I would be willing to let things go if they aren’t feeling right this year.
Just because we’ve done something for a few years or even a few decades doesn’t mean we have to keep doing them. The only thing we really need to keep doing is finding ways to learn and grow together. And this often means trying new things and taking novel approaches to how we belong together.
One of the seldom-discussed but essential elements of recovery is belonging. And I can think of no greater place to belong but in our own families. Yet many people who have eating disorders don’t feel like they belong in their families.
So this year is a great time to think carefully about that and make sure the priority is focused on belonging rather than food, presents, or other more superficial aspects of the holidays. When families learn to build belonging with a child who is struggling with an eating disorder, they can make a significant impact on that child’s recovery.
3. How can families address unsolicited comments and questions from extended family members? How can families set healthy boundaries?
My first advice is to sit down and devote some time thinking through what is most likely to happen. You’ve known your family a long time, so you probably don’t need to be surprised. Sometimes when we’re afraid of something, we avoid thinking about it, or we think about it unproductively.
So take some time and actually write down the characters and situations in your family that could be triggering.
Then think through whether and how you should approach them before the event to kindly let them know if you have any requests. I have some scripts for doing this, but basically, you’re keeping it very specific and short. And you’re usually going to want to sandwich it with comments like “I know how much you love us,” and “we can’t wait to see you.”
This gives the person the reminder that you know them and love them. And it takes some of the sting out of any requests you’re making.
Remember that hard conversations are, of course, hard. But relationships are living, growing things. They become superficial when we avoid depth and meaning. They falter when we only talk about the good and easy things. Facing hard conversations with family members is challenging. But it’s a healthy challenge to take on, and you will find that even if your family responds poorly to your boundaries, you will still learn and grow and strengthen your own communication skills in the process of talking to them.
4. If someone does notice that a loved one may need a little extra support or is showing symptoms of an eating disorder/relapse, what should/can they do?
My main advice is to stay really tuned into your child’s emotional state at all times, but especially during the holidays.
By the time you’re seeing behaviors, it may be a bit too late to head them off. So you’re going to want to try and sense how your child is feeling. Often we’ll sense stress, overwhelm, and flooding before, during, and after big family events. So I want parents to tap into those sensations and respond to their child by seeing what’s going on and soothing them before it gets too bad.
But if you miss the early signs of distress – and of course that happens – just respond as quickly as you can. When we see symptoms of the eating disorder, we want to avoid shame or judgment and respond with compassion. I would say something like “I’m guessing that you feel a bit stressed with everything that’s going on. It makes sense to me that you’re having a hard time. I’m here for you.”
If you sense your child is distressed during an event, I would immediately take some time away from the group to connect with them and help them feel soothed. The last thing I want a child who has an eating disorder to do is to push down or numb their discomfort, so I teach parents to attend to their kids’ discomfort and help them cope in the safety of their relationship.
Sometimes this makes parents very uncomfortable because it means, in some ways, that they must choose between the comfort of their own parents and their child’s comfort. I understand that it can be terrifying to overcome your own patterns of behavior in your family of origin. However, it’s best if you prioritize your role as a parent and care for your child’s needs. Your parents are grownups; your child is your child. This may feel uncomfortable, but I think when you sit back and think through your values, you’ll see that it makes sense to be the parent your child needs you to be.
5. How might families adapt their existing traditions to be more recovery-friendly? Or how might families create completely new traditions?
I think the main thing is to reimagine what the holidays would be like with more connection and belonging and less of an emphasis on food. It’s not that you can’t enjoy food, but I think it’s helpful to de-center it.
This may be a big shift for some people. For some families, the only way they connect with each other is over food. But I think it’s OK to challenge that assumption – that the only way we connect is through food – and find new ways to connect. You may find that you open up new avenues for belonging and connection, and that is a beautiful thing.
Additionally, you may need to set some boundaries about diet talk and body bashing. If your family has been connecting over this for decades, it’s going to be a hard habit to change. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And you don’t have to do this perfectly to get started.
Start having the tough conversations with your family of origin about how we talk about bodies. You can be the change-maker. You’re allowed to do this, and while it may be hard, it may ultimately open up new avenues for connection and belonging for you and your family members.
When you have a child who has an eating disorder it can be an opportunity to review your values and determine what you want to continue doing, stop doing, and start doing. This is an amazing chance to see the world through new eyes and try new things. And the work you do on behalf of your child will positively impact you, too! Family traditions can continue with an eating disorder – it’s really just about being thoughtful and planning ahead.
Happy holidays, everyone! xoxo
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.