Eating Disorder Support For Your Teen Over The Holidays

A teen holding a gift and hugging another person

This year’s holidays may not be like the ones we used to know. Amid pandemic restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings, more caution and creativity will be the key to safe plans.

Not only can we make our holiday plans more COVID-friendly, we can also make them friendlier to those with eating disorders. For people experiencing these illnesses, anxiety related to holiday eating, socializing, and changes in routine often make this season the most challenging time of the year.

The best gift we can give our children and other loved ones affected by eating disorders is genuine, informed support. Consider these suggestions to help your teenager with an eating disorder navigate the holidays ahead.

1. Inform yourself by looking beyond eating disorder behaviors.

When we know a loved one is struggling with restriction, bingeing, purging, or another disordered behavior, it is natural to focus on any visible signs of that behavior. “How much is on our teenager’s plate?” we might monitor. “Have they retreated to the bathroom to purge?” we might check. In our sincere desire to protect them from these harmful behaviors, we’re often on high alert for warning signs.

And while these behaviors are indeed important symptoms—not irrelevant information to which we should turn a blind eye—it is important that parents look beyond them as well. Underneath your teenager’s disordered behaviors is real psychological distress that deserves support and understanding.

Educate yourself to recognize how your teenager may be experiencing their eating disorder beyond its behavioral symptoms. Poems, letters, and stories written by those in recovery can help to illustrate how they are not choices or “bad habits,” for example, but rather fierce, all-consuming mental illnesses.

By acknowledging eating disorders beyond behaviors, parents can provide support beyond behavioral monitoring, including emotional support that addresses discomfort and perceived judgment when eating.

2. Organize activities that do not involve food.

An intense preoccupation with food is a major feature of eating disorders. It follows, then, that challenging this preoccupation is a key aim in recovery. Addressing the life-dominating concern with food is hard in a culture filled with conflicting messages about food. During holidays that seem to revolve around food? Even harder.

While enjoying food may be a festive, fun part of your holidays, an eating disorder can make it just the opposite for your teenager. Plan for activities that help to get their minds off food.

Some non-food-related plans include:

  • Practicing gratitude, whether it’s in sharing what each family is thankful for or simply allowing quiet time for everyone to pause, reflect, or journal.
  • Dreaming of the year ahead. What wishes does your family have for 2021? What can you and your teenager look forward to in regards to recovery, future family activities, or personal passions?
  • Reminiscing over family stories of holidays gone by.
  • Gathering together to watch favorite holiday movies, listen to familiar songs, or play classic games.

The purpose of these activities is not to avoid eating altogether (beware that your teen’s eating disorder may read it as permission or as an order to do just that), but to allow for opportunities to connect away from the table. These activities may be especially helpful before and after mealtimes, when eating disorder urges tend to be at their strongest.

3. Model healthy behaviors.

In an “all foods fit” approach, modeling healthy behaviors does not mean eating “good” foods in order to “offset” or avoid eating the “bad” ones. It is not loading our plates with “healthy” holiday alternatives to limit “indulgent” or so-called “diet-busting” ones.

To model healthy behaviors for your teen with an eating disorder, challenge these diet culture beliefs altogether. Describe food as just food. Not “good,” not “bad.” Not something you need to “earn” before or “burn” afterward—just food.

Use tips such as these to model an “all foods fit” philosophy:

  • Avoid words suggesting that one food is inherently “better” than another, such as “good, “bad, “healthy,” “unhealthy,” “sinful,” and “indulgent”
  • Refrain from labeling yourself or others as “better” or “worse” because of your food choices (e.g., “I’m being naughty today,” “I was so good earlier”)
  • Regard holiday foods as you would any other type of food, not as food that’s only “allowed” once a year
  • Refrain from commentary about weight or body, yours included
  • Rather than “saving up” for a big holiday meal, stick to regular meals throughout the day

4. Ask your teenager what they need.

Is there a specific type of support that your teenager would like? Something particular you can say or do to help make them more comfortable this holiday season? They may or may not know when asked, but you can afford them the opportunity to express their needs.

Ask multiple times, using different words and approaches to express your desire to support them in a way that’s most meaningful to them. You might also suggest specific ideas to open the conversation, such as:

  • Would they like to contribute a dish to the holiday spread? If appropriate for their stage of recovery, perhaps there is one they’d feel comfortable making—or one you could include as a familiar menu item.
  • Would they prefer if you prepared their plate(s) for them? In eating disorder recovery, it can be hard to determine appropriate portion sizes, and eliminating this concern can alleviate the discomfort that comes with making this decision.
  • Would a phone or video call with a friend or other support person be comforting? If so, you can certainly carve time into your family plans to accommodate this.

5. Encourage your teenager to engage in treatment.

Recovery benefits from a multifaceted approach that involves not only family and other support people, but professionals as well. Eating disorder specialists can help you and your teenager better understand these complex illnesses, share coping skills and tools, and develop a personalized plan that fits your teenager’s situation.

If your teenager is enrolled in a level of care that conflicts with your family’s holiday plans, they may feel guilty, ashamed, or sad about missing out. As a parent, you can remind them of the importance of continuing care—of working hard for their health and maybe for a future with peaceful holidays together. With proper support and care, it won’t always be this way.

If your family is participating in Family-Based Treatment for your teenager’s eating disorder, apply FBT principles at holiday meals as you would at any other meal. On holidays and otherwise, you can lead the effort to help your child heal.

You are not the cause of your teenager’s struggles with food this holiday season, but you are an important asset in helping them navigate and protect their recovery during it.

For more on supporting a child with an eating disorder, check out our other resources for families here and learn more about our adolescent and young adult programming here. If you believe your child is suffering from an eating disorder, reach out to us today by calling 1-888-364-5977 or completing our online form.

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