For many people, the holiday season is their favorite time of year. It’s bright with Christmas lights, more family time, and celebrations full of tasty food and drinks. Yet, for many who suffer with an eating disorder or those that are supporting a loved one suffering with an eating disorder, it can be a very challenging time of year.
Eating Disorder Fears
The fear of holiday weight gain is amplified to the highest degree in someone struggling with an eating disorder. The fear can be all-consuming. The thoughts taint what is supposed to be joyful times with negative, poisonous thoughts, self-doubt, and guilt. It’s very challenging for someone with an eating disorder to be around all the food and festivities that come with holiday celebrations. In such situations, individuals may feel vulnerable and unsafe, and then revert to their eating disorder behaviors to feel a sense of control and self-protection.
Holiday traditions epitomize what is good about family, friends, and relationships. But individuals suffering from an eating disorder can feel very conflicted during the holidays. Anticipating all the fun of holidays, while at the same time fearing that their eating disorder will be discovered, discussed, obsessed about, or controlling.
Providing support for someone with an eating disorder can be emotionally challenging, especially through the holidays. It can test one’s relationship with that person. And you may recognize that all you want to do is help but feel pushed away. Being compassionate and understanding about the illness can help make the holidays less of a battle.
5 Tips for Navigating the Holidays With a Loved One Struggling with an Eating Disorder
Avoid Placing Blame
When someone we love is struggling with something so complex, it’s extremely hard not to place blame somewhere. Parents who are supporting their children with this disease, can blame themselves. As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and is now a parent, I can emotionally relate on both sides.
Being able to let go of guilt and blame will help everyone involved. These negative emotions aren’t helpful, especially around members of the family that may not be aware of everything. Eating disorders are a very complex psychological disease. Behaviors and triggers are different for each person struggling. The disease is not caused by a single person or a relationship.
It can be extremely helpful to learn about the illness to gain a better understanding of what can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder. It’s also important to accept that you may not know what caused your loved one’s eating disorder, and the holidays may not be the right time to explore this. Have conversations with your loved one about their struggles, triggers, and behaviors, and ask them how you can support them when you notice signs of the eating disorder.
Be a Loved One First
We all want to just fix everything for them. That’s a very natural response. But being a self-declared dietitian, therapist, or detective takes you away from your job as their loved one. It’s not your job to fix or solve the eating disorder. Working too hard to stop specific behaviors can fuel dishonesty, defensiveness and other behaviors.
Instead, encourage nourishment for the body and to help provide support for their emotions. As much as it hurts you, nothing you do or not do will take away the eating disorder for your loved one. Your job is to care, empathize, encourage, and share the process of recovery with them. Be there with messages of love, respect, patience, and nurturing.
Emphasize the Meaning of the Holidays
Create celebrations that focus less on food and more on the purposes of celebrations. If others are joining out of town, take time prior to the event to educate them about eating disorders.
Create times together that don’t involve meals, sweets, or drinks. Invite family and friends to participate in smaller, quieter, and less chaotic social events. Talking and sharing as a small circle can be more meaningful and less stressful for your loved one with an eating disorder. Taking the time to create unique holiday celebrations may even inspire new family traditions.
Avoid Praise for Eating or Weight Gain
It seems natural to give compliments to others when they achieve something that you think deserves praise. And you’ve heard their meal plan encourages them to eat 100% of their meal or trying new foods at a party. Yet, the eating disorder brain can take that (well-meaning) praise and twist it into negative thoughts and behaviors. Many struggling with an eating disorder don’t tent to want public praise for eating or public encouragement to eat more.
The more effective way to is to offer encouragement is before an event or meal time. Offer support in private. Ask open ended questions and respect their requests.
Individuals going through a recovery program will often have a specific meal plan. Learn what that plan is prior to the holiday event. Offer support to help them adhere to their plan during the holidays.
Often a trigger for eating disorder behaviors is feeling out of control with what food is going to be available. Going to a party or a friend’s house and not knowing what is being served is the very definition of not feeling in control for someone with an eating disorder. This lack of control can trigger eating disorder behaviors before, during, and after an event.
The psychologist will be working with them to identify ways to navigate these situations without relying on eating disorder behaviors. And so your job as a loved one is to help make the transition easier, especially during the holidays. You can offer to bring a food item that you know fits into your loved one’s eating plan.
Another way to offer support is to plan to be your loved one’s interceptor by intercepting comments that may affect them. Ask them prior to the event if it would be helpful to be their voice. When someone asks about weight, foods, or makes diet-talk, intercept and change the conversation. Then, do a private check-in with your loved one.
Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder Through the Holidays
This is not a complete list of ways to provide support. Even with all of the lists on the internet, sometimes the best way to discover how you can support them, is by asking them. They likely will have strong opinions and suggestions on what you can do to help them during the holidays. We know it’s not easy being the support system for someone struggling with an eating disorder. But you play a major role in the person’s recovery and healing process.
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