6 Ways to Support a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays

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While the holiday season is traditionally a time for joy and celebration, individuals in eating disorder recovery often face distinct challenges and anxieties during this time. The prevalence of food-centric activities during holiday gatherings can contribute to heightened stress for those navigating the complexities of eating disorder recovery. As a concerned family member, you may be wondering how you can help.

If you have a loved one in recovery from disordered eating, they may be feeling particularly fearful or nervous about family gatherings around the holidays. They may be feeling anxious about eating in front of others, and concerned that they’ll be judged for what they do (or don’t) put on their plate. They may be nervously anticipating unwelcome comments from family and friends on their appearance. 

Listening to well-intentioned family members or friends make diet culture comments, boast about eating habits, or talk about needing to compensate for their indulgence can be especially triggering. Your loved one may turn to alcohol or drugs during the holiday season to numb out and get through all the family gatherings and meals. They may be so overwhelmed by the thought of eating around family that they want to opt out of the festivities altogether. But they may also be concerned about how family and friends might react if they don’t attend family gatherings — especially since not everyone may be privy to their ED recovery journey.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in facing these struggles during the holiday season, and support is available for you (and your family member). Many people in eating disorder recovery face similar challenges, especially around this time of year.

This is the first of two blogs in our Eating Disorder Recovery Around the Holidays series. This one’s for the allied and/or concerned family members — if you’re in recovery from disordered eating, perhaps you want to lovingly forward this to the wonderful people in your life who may not know quite “how to act” around you at this time of year. If you’re an allied and/or concerned family member (or friend!) wondering how to navigate holiday meals, you’re in the right place. And your support is meaningful, helpful, and kind. 

 Here are six ways you can be supportive of your loved one in eating disorder recovery during the holiday season:

1) Let your loved one know you’ve got their back, even if you don’t know the “right” thing to do. Check in with them about holiday plans, and see if they have preferences.

They may want to know what food is being served, or they may wish to bring in their own food.  Giving them a heads up can help them plan with their treatment team how to respond to the meal.  Bringing their own food is not a comment on your cooking, but may be an appropriate step to help them manage anxiety and nutrition during the holiday. Don’t take it personally!  

Timing of meals can also be challenging, too. If someone is working on eating at structured intervals, it can be very stressful to have meal times shift around day to day. If you aren’t sure what time the turkey will be done (I can relate!) make sure to have some snacks available.  Ask your family member what would be best for them.

Finally, eating around large groups can be very stressful. Having several small tables in different rooms can provide a quieter space that may work better.

2) Give space when requested.

If your loved one doesn’t want to talk about their challenges around food and body, respect their boundaries. Express openness and keep the door open, but don’t press them. If they are in treatment, be available to participate in a therapy session on how you can support their recovery. If they are not in treatment, ask them if they have any curiosity about starting so they can explore recovery with a neutral outside expert. Check out my eating disorder resources page for ideas on how you can educate yourself on eating disorder recovery.

3) Don’t make every conversation about food

Oftentimes family conversations revolve around meals, dish options, who is cooking, and will be served in the next meal. Trust me, I get it! I remember holiday potlucks and the great aunts asking who made the best dessert. However, this kind of talk can be overwhelming and exhausting. Conversations around work, relationships, movies and books, pets, art, sports, community happenings, and volunteering can be good substitutions. You can also never go wrong expressing gratitude.

4) Notice your own diet talk, body talk etc. and be willing to change the topic to something less stressful for the person in recovery.

Get curious if you notice that you focus a lot on what you eat or negative body talk. (As you become more self-aware, you may realize you talk about diets or food more than you realized!) I’ve had so many conversations with clients struggling with eating disorders who share that their family has NEVER EVER made negative comments about their body, but they grew up hearing significant negative self-talk from parents or siblings about their own bodies. It makes a difference how you talk about yourself around others. If you’re supporting a family member in eating disorder recovery, family therapy can be particularly helpful to discuss beliefs of patterns around food that may have unwittingly been passed down across generations. For more information about how family therapy can help, click here.

5) No conversations about what your family member is or is not eating, their weight, or their eating habits. This is the job of their expert treatment team members.

6) No comments about appearance. Ever.

Even well-intended comments such as “you look great” or even worse, “you look so healthy,” can be very triggering for folks struggling with body image disturbance and disordered eating. Instead try:  “I’m so happy to see you,” or “I can’t wait to hear about what’s been going on in your life.” Another great way to connect is by saying something like, “I have a great story to tell you about something that happened to me the other day.”

If your loved one is in eating disorder recovery, your support and mindfulness go a long way.  I hope these tips will help you navigate challenging situations with a bit more ease and grace, and make space for meaningful interactions with your loved ones in eating disorder recovery during holiday gatherings.

Family Therapy for Eating Disorder Recovery

I am a licensed clinical psychologist and Internal Family Systems therapist with extensive experience treating individuals in recovery from eating disorders. Including the family in treatment is a key part of the healing journey. So if you or your family member is in need of support this holiday season, I’d love to know how I can help. Schedule a free consultation to learn more. 
When you’ve finished reading this, you might find the second blog post in this series helpful too: 8 Tips For Managing an Eating Disorder This Holiday Season.

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