Jamie is worried. Her 13-year-old daughter Kayley has an eating disorder, and their annual family reunion for the Fourth of July is around the corner. This event is typically a highlight of their year. Filled with family and friends, four generations, and lots and lots of food.
“I just can’t imagine how we are possibly going to do this holiday with Kayley’s eating disorder,” says Jamie. “How are we going to feed her, and what will I do when my mom inevitably comments on Kayley’s weight? It’s going to be a disaster if I can’t figure out how to handle this.”
Jamie is not alone. Lots of parents have to decide whether to attend Fourth of July events and, if they do, how to make it as safe and fun as possible for everyone.
Check with your treatment team
The first thing to do is check with your child’s treatment team. Of course this event is a big deal for you and your family. But an eating disorder occurs on a huge spectrum from manageable to medically dangerous. Depending on where your child is on that spectrum right now, you may need to make the difficult choice to skip this year’s reunion.
I know this is devastating, and I’m sure you would rather not. But please keep in mind that if your child is medically compromised by their eating disorder, then you are essentially in a similar position as someone who has a child who is in chemotherapy and is immuno compromised. While technically they can go to a family reunion, their doctor may suggest skipping it this year to maintain optimum conditions for recovery.
If this is the case for you, I’m sorry. But an eating disorder doesn’t have to be forever, so hopefully this is a one-year change of plans with long-term benefits.
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Plan for feeding and eating
Depending on your child’s eating disorder and stage of recovery, you may expect them to maintain a rigid meal plan, or you may agree to be more flexible during the event. Either way can work for a medically stable person who has an eating disorder, but make sure the decision is made up front and not in response to the conditions at hand.
You’ve been to this event before so you know approximately what will happen. Is eating typically chaotic and random? Or is it formal and pre-planned? Given this information, plan how you will maintain your child’s need to eat regular, full meals every day. If you can fit in with the way your family operates every Fourth of July, that’s great! It would be wonderful if your child can join everyone else in eating. If not, maybe you can work in a few stable meals between group activities. Or you can plan to feed your child completely separately.
You have a lot of choices. Don’t let them take you by surprise once the event is underway. Make them in advance and then stick to the plan when you’re there.
Check with your child
Next you need to talk to your child about the event. I wouldn’t put the decision of whether to go or not in your child’s hands. I know this is tempting, and our cultural norm is to empower kids to make their own decisions. But in this case, giving your child the power to decide whether your family will attend a reunion is too much pressure, especially if they have an eating disorder, which means anxiety is high.
Instead, approach your child thoughtfully with the fact that you will go to the reunion this year, and then set your expectations in terms of the feeding and eating plan that you established. While you do want your child’s engagement in planning for the event, they should not feel they bear the responsiblity of keeping their care on-track. That should be yours to handle.
Also talk about how stress can trigger anxiety and eating disorder behaviors and have a plan in place for dealing with that. Mainly, you want to give your child permission to have feelings and be uncomfortable sometimes. It’s going to happen, so don’t turn something natural into a shameful event. Instead, set up expectations for how your child will recognize and respond to their feelings of anxiety and urges to engage in eating disorder behavior.
This is not a one-and-done conversation. It is multiple conversations that should take place before and during the event.
Identify the “problem” family members
Every family has its combination of easy-going and more problematic family members. Take some time to think through who will be there and any potential disasters. For example, is your uncle Harry a known dieter who loves to share how many calories he’s restricting himself to and then names how many calories are on everyone else’s plate? Is your sister Jenny doing Whole 30 or Intermittent Fasting? Does Grandma tend to talk about people gaining and losing weight?
Make a list of the family members who may say things that will negatively impact your child’s eating disorder recovery and consider how to handle them.
Depending on your relationship with them, here is what I recommend:
- Make a quick phone call or send a text telling them that your family is dealing with some body image issues and you hope they understand that it would be best if they didn’t mention dieting, weight loss, or weight gain. You do not have to tell them about the eating disorder unless you want to. A boundary does not require full disclosure or understanding to be valid or effective.
- If they are offended by this, then you know to steer clear (and steer your child clear) of them during the reunion. It’s OK to prioritize your child’s health over being around people who refuse to respect your boundaries and requests.
- If they say “no problem,” then stay near your child and monitor conversations. Most people don’t even realize they are talking about dieting and weight loss when they do it because it’s such an integral part of their socialization. But just because no harm is intended does not mean it’s OK. You can change the subject, ask them to stop, or simply leave the conversation.
- Talk to your child regularly throughout the event to find out if anyone has said anything upsetting. If they have, you don’t have to storm off and make a big deal about it. It’s in the past. But you can talk to your child about what happened and help them process it. Most of the time we don’t have to force other people to change in order to help our child feel better.
Stick to your plan
One thing that often happens at family reunions is that we get distracted by activities, people, and the chaos of being together. This is a lovely part of seeing people we know and love. But you do need a bit of extra dillgence this year to account for the eating disorder.
For example, you may be tempted to relax the meal plan because it’s too complicated or feels too disruptive. Or maybe someone questions your decisions or makes you feel bad about doing things differently this year. But if you’ve committed to a meal plan before the event, avoid changing it due to circumstances. While flexibility is wonderful, it should not be applied to feeding when there’s an eating disorder.
Similarly, you may wish you could ignore relatives who say things that trigger your child’s eating disorder because you just want to relax and have a good time. That makes a lot of sense, but your child needs to know you’re paying attention and keeping them in mind even when it’s inconvenient.
The basic advice for handling a big event like a Fourth of July party during an eating disorder is to make a plan, talk about the plan, and stick to the plan. Don’t avoid doing this even (especially) when it’s hard. Your strong efforts this year will pay off for years to come.
Jamie’s 4th of July
Jamie thought carefully about her family reunion in light of the eating disorder. Kayley’s care team said it was safe for her to go away for the four-day weekend, and Jamie planned out the meal structure and talked to a few problematic relatives. It was stressful for Jamie to talk to her mom especially.
“I know how much she loves Kayley, and the last thing I want to do is make her feel bad,” says Jamie. “But I knew it was important, not just this year, but forever. Now that we’ve faced an eating disorder, things have to change. We can’t act like nothing has happened, and I can’t let diet and weight talk seep into our lives again. Of course people are going to do what they’re going to do, but I can at least set expectations.”
And while Jamie’s mom assured her that she would not say anything, in the chaos of the reunion a few things did slip out. But Jamie gently redirected the conversations and it was actually helpful, she said. “My mom has never heard of the body positive movement, and she really hasn’t thought about how toxic it is to talk about other people’s weight. I feel like this gave us a good opportunity to talk about that. She was surprisingly open and curious, which was really helpful.” Holidays with an eating disorder can be tough, but Jamie’s doing a great job!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.