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The Challenge of Holidays

By Judy Krasna, FEAST Board Member and Volunteer

One thing that is pretty much true across all religions is that holidays focus on food. This makes holidays particularly difficult to navigate for individuals affected by eating disorders and their families.  Below are some suggestions based on my own experience to make the holidays a little easier.

Adjust your expectations

Your child’s eating disorder is an unwelcome and unwanted holiday intruder and will most likely impact the experience of your holiday. Expect a different type of holiday than what you have experienced with your family in the past.

Set expectations in advance

It’s important to discuss the holidays in advance and set expectations regarding not only meals, but about participation in family activities. People with eating disorders tend to isolate themselves. Speak to your son or daughter about how much participation you expect and see whether he/she feels capable of meeting your expectations. If not, see if you can reach a compromise. Also, discuss expectations regarding meals, so that everything is clear from the outset. Discuss this with your child’s treatment team if appropriate. Setting expectations in advance relieves the pressure all around.

Discuss in advance how to make the holiday easier for your son/daughter

Have a conversation with your son or daughter about what would make the holidays easier for them. It’s hard to balance consideration for them with the needs of the rest of the family, but there may be some compromises that you can make that allow everyone in the family to have a positive holiday experience without sacrificing tradition while reducing the anxiety of the person affected by an eating disorder.

Make sure that your son/daughter has holiday clothing

When weight is changing, clothes don’t always fit. Make sure that your son or daughter has holiday clothes that are suited for their current weight.

Plan holiday activities that don’t center around food

Most of us are more than happy to have holidays center around food, but for someone with an eating disorder, it is hard to connect to holidays in a positive way if it’s all about eating. Make sure to include other activities that have no connection to food. Do a family movie night, make up a family game, do an outdoor activity, plan a family holiday scavenger hunt—get creative and get your kids involved. Start new traditions!

Take out the old photo albums and family videos

Use positive memories to remind your person what they loved about the holidays before their eating disorder made an appearance. It sounds corny, I know, but it serves as a way to connect your person both to who they were before the eating disorder and to the rest of the family.

Give holiday guests the rundown on what not to do

If you are having holiday guests, speak to them in advance about what not to do. Examples of this are commenting on appearances (not only of the affected person, but of all family members, since it can be a trigger), commenting on what anyone is eating or not eating including themselves (and certainly not about what the affected person is eating or not eating), any type of diet talk or commenting on how full they are and how they overate, referencing food as good/bad, etc. Make sure that your immediate family members are also aware of the need to avoid these behaviors as well.

Keep structured mealtimes as much as possible

Holidays can mean unstructured mealtimes, and that is super difficult for a person affected by an eating disorder. Try to keep as much meal structure as possible during holiday periods.

Avoid stressful guests

The holidays are hard enough without stressful guests. This is a delicate issue, because family members do get insulted, but your priority has to be your child. Anyone who loves your child should understand this. If Grandpa cannot refrain from making comments about weight and dieting, he’s toxic, and cannot be around your family right now. It seems really harsh, but you have to protect your child.

Also, if certain guests stress you out to the point where you can’t be there for your person, then this is not a good time for them to join you for the holidays. You have enough stress in your life as it is, you don’t need more. This is the most basic level of self-care.

Monitor your person’s anxiety level

Holidays are times of high anxiety for people with eating disorders. It’s not just the food, it’s also the lack of regular schedule, the additional people in the house (even if it’s a sibling who is home from college), the participation in holiday activities, etc. Check in often with your son or daughter, let them know that you are there to help in any way possible, ask if there is anything specific that you can do to help them, distract them by spending time doing things with them, and let them know how much you love them, even if the response is a dramatic eye roll. They may not respond, but they hear you.

If you have any tips that have worked for you, please add them in the comments!

Wishing a happy holiday to those who celebrate, and a healthy new year to all of us.

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