When your child has an eating disorder, established family norms like discussing diet and weight can impact their recovery in harmful ways. During the holiday season, these often innocent but triggering behaviors may intensify, especially during family gatherings where food plays a central role as a medium through which loved ones bond and connect.
As you plan for this year’s holiday festivities, it’s helpful to anticipate and plan for potential landmines. While it may feel initially awkward to ask your family for behavior change, remember the heart of the matter: your child’s health.
Start by thinking through what commentary you have heard from your family during family gatherings in the past that were potentially harmful and emotionally taxing. Then, make a plan to reach out to loved ones with a tone that is light, bright, and polite. Keep your request specific, short, and sweet, and avoid blaming the person for their beliefs or behaviors. Of course, some people may feel offended no matter how carefully you craft your request, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.
Here are the four most common issues parents who have kids with eating disorders should consider addressing with their families in advance of holiday gatherings, along with suggestions for conversation starters that are compassionate and effective.
1. Say no to body-based greetings
It’s very common in our society to greet people with body-based greetings like “you look great,” “have you gained weight?” and “you’re so thin!” While often seemingly positive, all of these remarks harmfully suggest appearance is a person’s most important asset.
Eating disorders are highly responsive to social cues about weight and appearance, making it a powerful shift to limit body-based greetings and replace them with greetings that focus on the person’s personality or character.
If there are family members who you know will comment on your child’s body, reach out in advance to gently let them know why such comments can be harmful. Try saying something like: “I know how much you love Alex and want her to be happy and healthy. So I’d like to ask if you can avoid talking about her weight and appearance when we see you on Saturday. I’ve been working on this myself, and now instead of talking about how people look I just say things like ‘it’s good to see you.’ It’s a small change but it will really mean a lot to us. Would you consider it?”
2. Eyes on your own plate
In many families, there is at least one person who is extremely interested in what other people are eating. For example, you may have a dad who frequently says things like “Wow! You gonna eat all that?!” And while he says this in a joking tone and a twinkle in his eye, it’s inappropriate. Your child who has an eating disorder (and everyone else!) would do much better if your dad could keep these types of comments to himself.
To help keep everyone’s eyes on their own plate, let your loved ones know that these types of comments can be harmful – whether they are about eating “too much” or “too little”. Reach out to anyone who needs to hear this stating something like: “I am really looking forward to the holiday meal, and I can’t wait to catch up with everyone. I wanted to ask you a favor, and while it’s a small thing, I think it would be really great if you would consider it. I’ve noticed that you tend to talk about how much food people have on their plates, and I’d like to ask you not to do that. I know you mean it in a joking way, but it can make people uncomfortable, particularly Danny. Do you think you could try that?”
3. Skip the diet talk
Many people are deeply embedded in diet culture. For them, talking about their diet feels like a natural way to bond with others. They may share what they are and are not eating in detail. And they may even add in how many pounds they have lost and why it’s so important to lose weight since they want to be “healthy”.
While diet talk is culturally normative, it’s also harmful because it promotes the myth that health is directly tied to weight. It also perpetuates the incorrect assumption that we can and should control our body weight.
Since family members who tend to engage in diet talk may be struggling with their own relationships with food and their bodies, try to approach these conversations from a place of compassion. Call your loved ones and say something like: “I am really looking forward to seeing you on Thursday! I wanted to ask you a big favor in advance. I know that your diet and health are really important to you, and I totally understand where you’re coming from. At the same time, we’re working on pursuing health without dieting or weight loss. This is a real challenge we’re facing, and it’s important to us. Would you mind not talking about your weight loss goals? There’s so much else we can talk about, and while I know this is a big request, I’d love it if you would consider it.”
4. Acting on boundaries
These initial phone calls are how you can set your family’s boundaries in advance, but keep in mind that people may struggle to meet your boundaries. This is often due to force of habit, and sometimes it’s because people disagree with or don’t understand the boundary you have set.
On the day of the event, you might find yourself in a situation where you will need to decide whether and how you will respond when the behavior you’ve asked your family members not to do happens anyway. Keeping this in mind, you may want to think ahead and plan some options beforehand – from mild to assertive.
The first option is to ignore the comment. Make eye contact with your child communicating that you know what happened and don’t approve. Then follow up with your child privately and let them know that you are there to support them. This may sound something like: “I noticed that Aunt Trudy couldn’t help herself and commented on your weight. I’m really sorry about that. Is there anything you need from me now? Is there a way you would like me to respond differently in the future when that happens?”
The next option is to speak up and divert the conversation if necessary. You can say something like “Hey, mom, remember we aren’t talking about diets today! How’s Uncle Bert doing?”
Finally, the most assertive option is to take a break or leave the event. This is something you should do if you sense your child is in distress. Watch them carefully and stay tuned into their emotional state during the event. If you sense they are distressed and you are having difficulty helping them feel better, remember that it is okay to leave. This usually feels awkward, but your child’s safety and care should come first.
Family commentary during the holiday season can be a real challenge. But the most powerful approach is to go in prepared. Family dynamics, just like traditions, often repeat year after year, so planning in advance can help make holiday gatherings more relaxed and joyful for the entire family.
About Ginny Jones
Ginny Jones is the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have a child with an eating disorder. Ginny recovered from a longtime eating disorder and has spent the past decade immersed in research regarding child psychology, neurobiology, parenting, and eating disorders. Her unique approach to supporting parents who are facing a child with an eating disorder is based on her lived experience, research, training, and interviews with hundreds of professionals, people who have/had eating disorders, and parents. Her mission in life is to empower parents to help their children recover.