Clementine Parent Advisory Board Members Becky Henry, CPCC and Cherie Monarch co-wrote this week’s blog post for all those with a loved one struggling with an eating disorder. Becky and Cherie outline clear tips to create a game plan to support you and your loved one in navigating the upcoming holidays. We are thankful to both Becky and Cherie for contributing this extremely helpful piece.
For someone with an eating disorder, the holidays can be an extremely difficult and stressful time. There are family celebrations, school parties, office parties, friend parties…the list goes on. But the common theme of these celebrations is FOOD. Food is everywhere. Food is the topic of conversation. Everyone is speaking of “good” and “bad” foods. How they shouldn’t be “bad”. How they will “work it off” tomorrow. FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. WEIGHT.
For our loved ones trapped in the private hell of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and other eating disorders, the holidays are the ultimate nightmare. These holidays magnify the personal struggles of our loved one and can be extremely difficult – for the family and the patient. The family is uncertain how to support the patient during these “food” feasts and the patient is terrified, feeling an increase in anxiety surrounding the holidays.
Follow these 10 tips to create a game plan that will help support you and your loved one throughout these food focused holidays.
Encourage your family to focus on the real meaning of the celebration. Make sure that the primary focus of the holiday is not on the food but rather on the family and the valued time you will share together. Take this opportunity to educate family and friends about eating disorders prior to the event. Discourage talk of calories, food, fullness, over eating, and encourage discussions of gratitude and love.
Recognize and validate how challenging the holidays are for your loved one. Understand for someone navigating an eating disorder the holidays are overwhelming. Validate their fears and their challenges. Be compassionate, kind, supportive and loving.
Plan other activities and distractions. Allow for other activities such as games, movies, caroling, decorating, that focus on the quality time with friends and family. This will give your loved one and you and opportunity to relax and breathe.
Plan meals ahead of the event. Establish a plan with your loved one on how they will navigate the day. Determine ahead of time how you can best support them and what their menu will be. For someone with an eating disorder, being faced with a bountiful buffet can be overwhelming. So many choices and decisions can be paralyzing. Help free them by supporting their decisions for meal choices ahead of time.
Grab a buddy. Prior to the event, help your loved one establish a buddy. This buddy will be their support system throughout the day. Anticipate what potential challenges will be and plan ahead on how to navigate. Have the buddy sit next to them during the meal. Establish a sign, like a squeeze of the hand, that will make the buddy aware they need additional support or are struggling. Step away privately to navigate.
Don’t make it about the food. Do not focus or comment on what your loved one is eating or NOT eating. Remember if they are unable to properly nourish at the event, they can supplement later. Don’t ruin your day or your loved one’s day by focusing on the food.
Set healthy boundaries together. You and your loved one work together to establish a plan on how friends and family will be addressed should the conversation take an unhealthy or triggering turn… such as diet talk, food, weight, etc. It can help to role-play this in advance. Saying something like “I declare this table a diet free and weight free zone” or “Can we please change the conversation to something more meaningful and just enjoy each other’s company?” or “I’m so thankful to be amongst family and friends on this special day. Why don’t we each share what we’re grateful for?” Important that you learn how to ask for what you need.
Be mindful of the time. Often times when our loved ones are navigating recovery it helps to eat at structured times. Have this conversation ahead of time. How can your loved one meet their nutritional needs that day? Make sure the events are planned with a pre-determined time for meals and nourishing. Be aware that it can add tremendous stress to someone in recovery when meal times are ignored or unstructured. Change in routine is very challenging to navigate.
Remember there is always next year. Holidays can appear at difficult times in the recovery process. If your loved one feels they are unable to face family and friends at this time, change it up. Maybe go for a picnic in the park, spend time in nature, and feed the ducks. Another option is to do something small and intimate right in your own home. Or maybe just prepare a bunch of appetizers (something fun and different) and watch a movie and take a nap. Maybe the entire family can do a hobby together, and keep the focus off the food and on the experience and together time.
Don’t forget to laugh!! It is amazing how much laughter can help lighten the mood and alleviate the stress!
While the holidays are a time for celebration, it is also key to remember that those with eating disorders may be having a particularly hard time. It is critical that a game plan be created in order to help you and your loved one navigate these stressful holiday gatherings. Following these tips may be a helpful way to guide you and your loved one through this stressful time.
Try to remember that holidays are about celebrating family, gratitude, blessings, and remembering what is truly important in life. The holidays are not about the food. Food is just a part of the celebration. But it’s not the reason we celebrate.
Try not to focus on the eating disorder or let the eating disorder even be a part of the day. Remember that any missed nutrition can be replenished. If there are any concerns, certainly address them with the treatment team after the holidays.
If the celebration, or thought of it, is causing tremendous stress or anxiety on your loved one express concern in a constructive way and ask how you can support them. Remember that you can celebrate quietly and don’t have to attend large stressful gatherings if your loved one is not ready. The most important thing is that there are future opportunities for celebration and that your loved one is here to truly experience them in a healthy way.
Happy holidays to you, your loved one, and your family.