Eating Disorders: 8 ways to support your loved one through the holiday season.

  1. Encourage them to express their feelings by having regular check-ins (do it in private)

The actual holiday gathering is not the only difficult time for your loved one.  Days and hours leading up to and after holiday events are challenging as well.  Make sure your loved one has a safe confidential place to talk things out, a support network to reach out to and coping tools to express their feelings prior to and after gatherings.

During the holiday gathering have verbal and non-verbal ways of checking in with each other, such as a code word, particular hand gesture or facial expression.   Don’t assume their “okay” just because they are smiling or eating-take them aside and speak with them about how they are and what they need.

  1. Plan ahead; keep the days structured but not overwhelming (don’t “wing it”)

Talk ahead of time about what the holiday festivities will look like.  Discuss potential triggers and note what the warning signs of lapsing looks like.  Keep the days of the holiday event structured and planned out to leave little time to ruminate and engage in eating disorder behaviors.  Not having a well thought out plan of how to handle triggering situations or strong eating disorder urges is a recipe for disaster. However, on the converse, don’t make the day so busy that it’s too overwhelming and then your loved one uses eating disorder behaviors to cope with the overwhelm.

  1. Have an exit strategy

Pre-plan how to leave a situation, conversation or the social gathering when it becomes too difficult for your loved one to endure.  Letting your loved one know that it is okay to leave a holiday event relieves a lot of pressure from them to be perfect and please those they care about.  Also, prioritizing multiple holiday events, only attending those of most importance and sitting out the other ones provides a great deal of support and understanding that social holiday events are stressful to deal with while in recovery.

  1. Make recovery a primary focus of the holiday season

We all get busy during the months of November and December.  It is easy to forget things, stop doing things, and blow things off because “there is not time”.  Recovery needs to be #1 priority at all times.  Statistically speaking there is a high relapse rate during the holiday season.  Supporting your loved one by ensuring recovery is at the forefront this holiday season will protect them from sets backs.

  1. Change the focus from food to fun.

In America, we have this habit of celebrating everything with food.  When someone has an eating disorder they experience a load of shame, embarrassment and anxiety about what and how much they ate.  As irrational as it may seem, I can assure you the struggle is very real.  Think about it, it’s like taking your worst fear; spiders, mice, heights or flying and being forced to do it. Would that be a very merry day of fun? Keeping this in mind, support your loved one by putting the focus on fun activities or creating holiday traditions that do not circle around food.  Keep food as a small part of the holiday event and not an all day grazing fest.  Help your loved one take their focus off the food by encouraging them to pay attention to the activities, conversations and experiences that are happening around them.

  1. Avoid fat, weight, body talk

We have all done it. Listen to, engaged in or initiated, weight/fat/body image talk.  “I ate so much I gained 10lbs”.  “I better go running for the next 5 hours to work off all the dessert”.  “Did you see Sam, it looks like they gained/lost weight”.

Talk such as this hurts. People struggling with an eating disorder are hypervigilant to this type of talk and though perhaps this is innocent conversation to be funny, it can easily derail someone working towards recovery.

To support your loved one steer conversations that are fat/weight/body image focused to different topics. Don’t talk that way yourself and if you are concerned a particular friend or family member will forget their sensitivity filter at home have a conversation with them ahead of time about topics to avoid talking about.

  1. Validate, Validate, Validate (refrain from being a helicopter)

I have heard many times from clients that “everyone is going to watch me eat” “they always stare at me to make sure I am eating/eating enough/not binge eating”.  “They are always on me about how much I ate/when I ate/ if I ate”.

This helicopter way of support is off putting and unproductive, often leading to defensiveness and arguments.

If you want to provide productive support validate your loved one by pointing out what they did well, celebrate in their successes and with sincerity acknowledge that they are trying yet struggling.  For example:  “I heard Grandma asking you if you lost any weight.  You looked uncomfortable by the question.  I imagine that was awkward. I am proud of how you handled yourself with her.”

  1. Call a spade a spade (refrain from dancing around things)

Confrontation, when done lovingly, is an excellent form of support.  Letting things slide because you “don’t want to upset” them is not supporting them. It is enabling them.   Approach tough conversations this way:   When you see someone you love hiding food at the holiday dinner table, for example, pull them to a private area and say “I saw you struggling with dinner; the bun went in your napkin.  I understand that this is hard but not eating is not an option.  I’m going to get a bun and you can try this again”.

One extra tip for this holiday season, get your own support.  Helpers need help too.  Without getting your own support you run the risk of burning out.  Burn out makes us short fused and unpleasant to be around as well as affects our own mental wellbeing.

From all of us at Evolve, have a merry and joyous holiday season.

If you or someone you know struggles with an eating disorder, we are here to help.  Please call or email us for a free 15 minute consultation.  920.364.9078 or