Thanksgiving is one of America’s most hallowed traditions, and many Americans rank it as their favorite holiday. The combination of a hearty meal, the autumnal, harvest-time setting, time spent with loved ones, and setting apart a space for gratitude make this holiday a special time. However, one person’s favorite holiday can be another’s hurdle to overcome. For people with eating disorders, even after experiencing treatment, Thanksgiving might be a nightmare. Facing your fears isn’t easy at any time; when even everyone else at the gathering is reveling in the very things you find difficult, it’s even harder.
For parents of adolescents struggling with disordered eating behaviors, Thanksgiving can also be a trying time. How do you balance creating a bountiful holiday meal for a large group with prioritizing your child’s discomfort at mealtimes? This is far from an uncommon problem – some estimates show that 2.7 percent of teenagers will experience an eating disorder at some point, a figure that totals in the millions in the United States alone. Even after they have undergone eating disorder treatment, mealtime and food-centric activities can be distressing for these individuals.
So, as a parent, how can you make Thanksgiving as stress-free and non-triggering as possible for your child when they are struggling with food and eating? There are a few tried-and-true ways. These are mostly focused on people who have already received some treatment for their eating disorder and are currently in recovery, but any of them can also apply as generally good ideas Here are seven tips that can help parents manage Thanksgiving for adolescents with eating disorders.
1. Don’t Normalize Disordered Behaviors
Disordered eating behaviors usually center on binge eating, food restriction, and/or purging behaviors depending on the type of disorder a person is experiencing. One important way to prevent these behaviors at thanksgiving is to avoid normalizing them. Before a big meal like Thanksgiving, many people will fast the day before (because they don’t want to put on weight) or talk about how they plan to eat way too much. These kinds of statements might act as triggers for a person with anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder, respectively. Avoiding this kind of normalizing behavior and asking guests to follow suit will help prevent inadvertently signaling to your child that food restricting or binging is all right.
2. No Judgment About How Much (or Little) They Eat
At Thanksgiving or at any other time, “no judgment” should be the mantra for supporting a person with an eating disorder. Most eating disorders are accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame, both about the food that’s eaten and about the disordered eating behaviors. Acting judgmentally reinforces those feelings and can drive an adolescent further into disordered eating, with the added negative that they may withdraw from discussing it with you. Never say things like, “You’re not eating enough” or “Don’t eat so much!” Especially, don’t talk about their weight or body at the meal – if it’s becoming a serious issue, save that conversation for a less stressful time.
3. Stick to Your Regular Eating Schedule
T’s natural to make a big deal about Thanksgiving dinner. People look forward to it all year, and the typical meal is a grand affair with weeks f planning and hours of prep needed to pull it off successfully. For people with eating disorders, though, it might be best to treat it as just another meal. Many programs for recovery stress eating three balanced meals per day, and deviating from that schedule can be a disruptive factor. As an example, a person with bulimia nervosa is prone to binge eating and then purging that food. Treating Thanksgiving dinner as an excuse to binge eat is a potential pitfall for their recovery. Or for a person with anorexia nervosa, the idea of eating a huge meal may be too much to overcome. It’s better in both cases to allow your adolescent to eat three normal-sized meals throughout the day, no matter what everyone else is doing.
4. Give Them Space If they Need It
Even recovered individuals can become overwhelmed by the stresses and sheer food-centric nature of Thanksgiving. If your child is sitting at the table, surrounded by their “fear foods” and constant talk about food, eating, and often weight gain, they may be putting on a brave face. Allow them to release the safety valve any time they want. If they ask to leave the table for a bit, absolutely let them go. They might need a little time alone. You can always check on them if they’re gone too long. Similarly, if they have become withdrawn at the table or seem out-of-sorts, don’t push them too hard. Just ask if they’re all right, and listen to what they have to say.
5. Ask Them What Their Boundaries Are Beforehand
Boundaries are important in the mental health recovery process. Much of the recovery process consists of improving mindfulness and self-awareness, so if your adolescent has been in treatment, they will know what their triggers are and how to defang them. It helps them to manage the big occasion to ask them what their boundaries might be before the guest arrive. You may discreetly ask guests not to discuss weight gain or how “fat they feel,” or try and change the subject if someone starts talking about a potentially triggering subject. As noted earlier, if they feel their boundaries are being pushed, always let them leave the table for a moment to clear their head. Finally, if they don’t want to eat a certain food (or have seconds of a particular item), don’t press the issue. One meal doesn’t really matter in the long run, and maintaining personal comfort is more important than meeting someone else’s idea of how a person should be eating.
6. Help Them Eat Intuitively, For Nourishment and Enjoyment
Intuitive eating is another core tenet of eating disorder recovery. It means eating what nourishes your body and brings you pleasure without worrying about the calories or other triggering aspects of food. At Thanksgiving, you can help your adolescent eat intuitively by encouraging them to eat whatever they want without pressing the issue. They don’t want to eat the green beans? No problem. They legitimately hate pumpkin pie and would rather just have a cup of coffee or some fruit for dessert? Perfect. Thanksgiving is about expressing love and gratitude for life’s pleasures, so if the pressure to eat a certain way, or eat certain foods is getting in the way of their enjoyment, it’s counterproductive to the point of the holiday. If they’re really struggling on the holiday and binging or restricting – take time afterward to discuss their experience. Thanksgiving can be tough on a person with an eating disorder, and you can always help them get back on track when the stressful day is done.
7. Plan Activities for After the Meal
This tip is especially useful for teenagers in recovery from bulimia nervosa (where individuals purge following a large meal), but it works for anyone that struggles with an eating disorder. Sometimes the best way to cope with urges to use disordered behaviors is to just think about something else for a while. After Thanksgiving dinner, some individuals might “get in their head” about the meal and their emotions concerning it. Help them get their mind off those thoughts and feelings by planning a group activity afterward. If they’re a football fan, perfect! You’ve got a built-in activity every Thanksgiving. Try to find something they like to do – you might organize a boar game or deal the cards, you might play music or jam together, or you can take a walk in the brisk autumn air. Something to do on Thanksgiving that doesn’t center completely on food can be a lifesaver.
Eating Disorder Recovery Is a Long but Worthwhile Process
Whether your child is in recovery from an eating disorder, is about to go into treatment, or is simply struggling with body image as well as eating, parents should do what they can to ensure their relationship with food and eating is a positive one. Sometimes that means eating disorder treatment. Like any mental health disorder, eating disorders often require months or years of emotional, behavioral, and psychiatric therapy. It’s often a long process, but one that’s necessary for their well-being. Eating is central to our experience as human beings; creating a healthy relationship with it is a core part of our happiness.
If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, there are myriad resources available. Virtually every therapist, adolescent-specialized or not, can identify an eating disorder and provide referrals for more specialized treatment. If that treatment is warranted, you can consider specialized eating disorder treatment from a professional facility. They normally come in residential, day treatment, and virtual levels of care. Reach out to one as soon as you can if an eating disorder is disrupting your child’s happiness and health.