For people with eating disorders, the holidays—the eating, the socializing, the changes in routine—are often an annual stressor. Intensifying the challenges again this year are the still-high levels of anxiety, discomfort, and fatigue hovering over this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether your family’s 2021 holiday plans are virtual, in person, or some combination of both, supporting your teenager with an eating disorder can be a meaningful part of them. Consider these suggestions to help your teenager navigate the holidays ahead in recovery.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Is there a specific type of support that your teenager would like? Something 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:
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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