It’s no secret that the holidays can be an emotionally challenging time for anyone, and are often especially tough for families navigating eating disorder recovery.
“The holidays are like a marathon of dealing with these culturally loaded interactions with food and bodies,” says licensed psychologist and gender therapist Sand Chang, PhD. “And they are also a time where a lot of people are having big feelings about their families, like estrangement or grief for whoever is no longer around. So it's a time when a lot of people can feel like there's increased conflict or isolation and this can exacerbate eating disorder symptoms.”
One common obstacle that family members may want to be prepared for is unsolicited body commentary. While this can of course be challenging for anyone to navigate, those with eating disorders may need significantly more support in dealing with comments around weight, eating behaviors, exercise habits, and more.
“This is the first holiday season where people have been feeling more safe to gather because more people are vaccinated and that's wonderful — but that also means people are seeing each other for the first time in a long time and that body appraisal and surveillance is going to be more intense,” Chang says. “So they might say, ‘I haven't seen you for two years — you look so good, what are you doing?’ or ‘you gained weight.’ This can exacerbate an eating disorder, so this holiday will be bringing up more of those difficult feelings for people.”
If you’re unsure of how best to support your loved one through recovery this holiday season (while maintaining your own mental well-being), read on for tips from experts and those who have navigated challenging family dynamics themselves:
Set realistic expectations for yourself and for your loved one
When Equip family mentor Lisa Stein first began dating her boyfriend, celebrating the holidays with his boisterous family was initially a challenge for her daughter who is in recovery from anorexia. “It was hard for my daughter to eat food that was prepared very differently than I make it,” Stein says. “I had to explain to his family members that my daughter had an eating disorder and that eating food prepared by others in a big group was challenging to her. His family was compassionate but had little understanding of eating disorders. They also have a background of food insecurity, so the concept of restricting food was hard to comprehend. I now realize that I so badly wanted my daughter to enjoy the holiday trips, but that was probably not realistic.”
Stein says that although her daughter was eating on a meal plan at that point, she was not fully recovered and eating freely. She advises other caretakers to set realistic expectations and to meet their loved ones where they are in the recovery journey. “Honestly evaluate where your child is in the recovery process and be realistic about their ability to participate in the event,” Stein says. “If possible, put their mental health needs before your own need to participate and to not disappoint other family members this year."
Make a plan with extended family ahead of time
"Many parents are hesitant to gather with extended family when their child is in eating disorder recovery because they are terrified of the seemingly inevitable diet or weight comments that other adults may make,” says Equip Family Mentor Oona Hanson. “One option is to talk to those folks ahead of time and explain that you really could use their help in supporting recovery. Even when you make a clear request, however, it's likely someone will forget or not realize their food or body comment could be harmful. So parents also need to be ready to gently interrupt those comments and redirect the conversation."
Help your loved one identify their needs and set boundaries
“What I try to do in my work with people who are struggling with eating disorders or with family members commenting on their bodies is help them recognize what choices they have,” Chang says. “A lot of times people feel like they're trapped in conversations or they have to have them because they can't get out. It's about recognizing the options that you might have in a conversation with someone else. It might be about healthy distraction or changing the subject. It’s about creating emotional boundaries for ourselves.”
Allow space for loved ones to ask questions and show concern
Eating disorder recovery can be an intensely private journey for many families. But in some cases—if all members of the family are comfortable and consent to sharing—discussing the situation with others outside the immediate circle of loved ones may be helpful.
“I wish people knew it's okay to break the silence to not let it be the elephant in the room,” says Sue Bowles, a Life Coach who is in recovery from an eating disorder and describes growing up in “a dysfunctional family where emotions weren't discussed.” Bowles says that after her parents divorced, she felt torn between her mom and dad and reluctant to share her own struggles. “Sometimes, time with friends or being invited over to someone's house may be the one 'escape' afforded during the holidays which helps decompress from the other stress. Never assume someone isn't available or not interested.”
If you’re concerned, lead with consent
“A lot of people who are going to be struggling with an eating disorder might not be aware of it or they might feel pretty defensive when other people bring it up, so consent is really key,” Chang says. “So being able to pull someone aside, and say, ‘hey, I am feeling concerned about you and I'm wondering if you would be open to talking about it or hearing about that?’ It can feel like for the person on the other side that they're being criticized or in trouble, so with care and connection and concern and consent is important.”
Know that it’s okay to stray from the “traditional” plan
Stein says that at times, it was difficult to balance the needs of her other children throughout her daughter’s recovery journey. “My older daughter is very family-oriented and it is disappointing for her to not attend events because of her sister's eating disorder,” she explains. “Consider dividing and conquering with your family this holiday season. It's okay to send other siblings with dad to a family event. It's okay to drop off other siblings if you are in a single parent household. It's okay to feed your child at home and bring them to the non-food portion of the event."
Show support to your fellow caretakers too
Caring for a loved one with an eating disorder is difficult work, and in many cases, parents and other caregivers share the responsibility. Remember to show support to one another while you show support for your loved one in crisis or recovery.
“Give extra grace to each other,” Bowles suggests. “Not every family is the 'perfect' family, no matter the image they try to portray. Your sibling or spouse may have to play the 'dutiful person' role and may need some decompression time afterwards. Be supportive, understanding, and have a code word to 'rescue' them when it's time for them to go — [choose] a word they can say to you which indicates, ‘I've got to go. I've given all I can.”