The holidays present a tough duality: the special opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, and all the challenges that can come with doing so. For families in the midst of eating disorder recovery, these gatherings can be particularly anxiety-provoking. What if an aunt or uncle comments on weight gain or loss? What if a cousin can’t stop talking about their latest crash diet? What if another family member offers up a well-intentioned but triggering remark (“You look so good now!”) or a common but cringe-worthy holiday refrain (“Ugh, I’m so full, I feel sick.”)?
If you’re helping someone through recovery (or in recovery yourself), these looming social events raise important questions: should you tell your family and friends what’s going on? If so, what should you share? And what can you do in the moment to make the inevitable challenges easier for you and your loved one?
We spoke with experts in the field to answer these questions and more. Read on to learn how you can work with your support network to set crucial boundaries, navigate thorny topics with confidence, and actually enjoy the holiday season:
Often, the best move is to say something
As much as you may want to protect your family’s privacy, protecting your loved one’s recovery is more important—and speaking up is often the way to achieve that. If your child is in eating disorder recovery, you may want to consider reaching out to friends or family members ahead of a get-together to discuss boundaries.
“There’s nothing wrong with speaking to family members and loved ones prior to the gathering and asking them to refrain from any triggering topics,” says Equip Family Mentor Laura Cohen. “Make sure to provide examples, because they really may not realize things that could trigger your loved one.”
Erin Parks, Ph.D., Equip Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer, adds that anticipating and meeting family members’ needs in advance can be critical to a successful gathering. For example, Parks says, imagine that you have an aunt who spends all day cooking and needs to get effusive praise on her food. “So say, ‘Aunt Cathy, Sam is having a really hard time with food right now—your cooking will be amazing as always, but Sam isn’t going to compliment you on it. Please don’t take it personally—food is just a really hard thing for him right now,’” Parks advises. “If your child is going to look different—thinner, heavier, etc—say, ‘Hey, so excited to see you. I want to give you a heads-up that Sam looks a little different than the last time we saw you. I really need you to not comment on him physically in a good or bad way.’ Tell them that you’re asking this of everyone, so they don’t feel singled out.”
Equip Patient Experience Manager Amanda DuPont says she thinks it’s important to discuss expectations ahead of time as well. “It's not fair to get upset that your partner, parent, or friend didn’t back you up when diet culture talk came up at the dinner table, if you didn't let them know in advance that you needed their support,” she says. By being honest and open about your needs and the needs of your loved one, you give those around you the opportunity to support you through difficult moments.
Prepare for push-back…and stay strong
When talking with family members ahead of time, you don’t owe them the full diagnostic or treatment status of your loved one; you can just tell them about the current challenges and what you need from them. Of course, you cannot control their reaction to that.
Some family members will respect boundaries around diet and body talk with no questions asked…and some will have a lot of questions or unsolicited commentary. “I think most parents understand the message, ‘My kid is having a hard time right now.’ Sometimes you don’t need to say much more,” Parks says. “But have realistic expectations. Every one of these calls isn’t going to be great. That’s not the goal. The goal is to get through them.”
If a family member interrogates the situation or poses a long list of follow-ups, remain calm but stay firm. “Validate, then reassert the boundary,” Parks says. “Say, ‘This is so confusing, it makes sense that you have a lot of questions. I had a lot of questions when this first started, too. I’ll send you over some articles that kind of helped me understand it. Can we schedule a time to talk after we get through Thanksgiving? Now’s not the right time.’”
Prepare anti-diet culture talking points
“Even for those who are recovered, it can still be challenging to hear the unsolicited body and food commentary that seems to accompany the holiday season,” Dupont says. Still, regardless of who you choose to tell or not tell about your loved one’s eating disorder recovery, people are bound to say problematic things (often unintentionally). From “Diet starts tomorrow!” to “I’m so glad I worked out so I can have dessert,” diet culture is so deeply ingrained in our society that DuPont says it can be super tough to even notice it when it comes up—especially if you’re not sure what to look for.
DuPont says that the actual strategies for setting boundaries around diet culture talk will look different depending on one's comfort level with confrontation, the audience, the age of the person in recovery, and whether or not those involved know the person has an eating disorder. “When those topics or phrases arise, it’s completely acceptable to say something like, ‘I’ve been working towards not assigning morality to foods—food is not good or bad, it is just food,’” DuPont says. “Or ‘I prefer to enjoy my food without assigning guilt—it's been a really powerful new approach to food for me.’”
Another way to put the kibosh on diet talk is to be as straightforward and blunt as possible. “One could also say, ‘I don't find those types of comments about food to be helpful’” DuPont says. “Or ‘I enjoy focusing on the joy of the holiday and the experience of being together, instead of the calorie count.’” If the person in treatment does not feel comfortable confronting someone when these phrases arise, it can be helpful to have them designate a point person to speak up on their behalf if and when the conversation goes that way. She says it's also reasonable to simply remove yourself from the conversation if the environment is not supportive of your or your loved one's recovery journey: “It's okay to walk away and I think people forget that sometimes, especially when it might encroach on a tradition.”
Control what you can: your own reactions
No matter whether you tell everyone in your network or no one, the reality is that you can’t fully control other people’s words or behaviors—but you can control your reaction to them. That’s where mental and emotional preparation becomes invaluable.
One of the best ways to plan appropriate boundary-setting is to anticipate a variety of potential scenarios that may arise at family functions, and practice strategies for handling them. “Holidays tend to revolve around food and family and those are probably the two biggest triggers for those battling an eating disorder,” says Cohen. “Imagine walking into a family member’s home for the holiday that will be centered around food and the first thing out of their mouth is ‘You look so much healthier’ or ‘Wow, you have really gained some weight’ or ‘How did you get so skinny? I wish I had your willpower.’”
Cohen suggests that family members help those in recovery "cope ahead" for these kinds of challenges by talking about conversations that may come up and how they might choose to handle them. “It can be as simple as saying ‘I would prefer that we do not discuss bodies today’ and changing the subject,” Cohen says. “Coping ahead for these situations can really be your best plan of action. Practice being direct and to the point; this is not the time to ‘wing it’ or just to ‘deal’ with situations that you know will be challenging.”
Ultimately, who you tell—if you tell anyone at all—will depend on your holiday plans, your family dynamics, and where your loved one is in recovery. The main thing to remember is that while confrontation and boundary-setting may be uncomfortable, your priority this holiday season is not other people’s comfort: your priority is helping your loved one get through the challenges ahead while continuing to work toward recovery. By focusing on that this year, you’ll have many more in the future where you can embrace all the trappings and traditions of the season.