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Coping with an eating disorder at family holiday events

family holiday eating disorder

Today we’ll hear from a parent whose daughter has an eating disorder and the parent is concerned that her extended family will trigger the eating disorder during holiday gatherings. 

The letter 

Dear Ginny,

My daughter has an eating disorder and this is our first time seeing extended family since it started. Going into the Christmas holiday with my family with this eating disorder is hard. While I’m really looking forward to seeing family, I’m also really nervous about how it will impact my daughter. The truth is that they tend to say stuff about diets and weight. 

There’s a part of me that thinks we should cancel our trip and just not go. And there’s another part that thinks I deserve to spend time with my family and everything will be fine. I’m not sure which part of myself to listen to. Any ideas?

Signed, Roley 

My response

Hi Roley! I totally get this. So many parents face this difficult situation during the holidays.

On the one hand, you want to support your daughter’s recovery. On the other hand, you want to see your family. A holiday with extended family plus an eating disorder can be a real challenge.

And you’re right to be thinking carefully about this. If your family has previously made diet and weight comments, they’re likely to do it again. So let’s take some time to think this through. 

There are two main areas of concern when it comes to family gatherings during the holidays: body talk and food talk. 

These are nuanced and very common, so it’s important that we think carefully about the standards and norms in our own families and consider them in advance of any family events. 

Body talk 

Body talk can be anything from comments like “You look great!” To damaging comments like “Have you gained weight?” Or “You need to put some meat on your bones!” 

It may also include critiquing other people’s bodies. For example, someone may say “She looks great!” when someone’s lost weight. Or they may say “My coworker gained a ton of weight eating everything in his house during COVID.”

Body comments can also be about a person’s own body saying things like “I finally lost those 10 lbs I gained during COVID.” Or “I have to weigh myself every day or I’ll get in trouble.” 

There is a wide spectrum of body-based comments that are very common in our society. 

Food talk

Food talk can be something like “Come on, eat a piece of pie; I made it especially for you!” To “Wow, that’s a lot of food on your plate! Guess you’re hungry today!” 

Or it could be about the supposed morality of eating – the idea of being either good or bad based on the food you eat. This sounds like “Oh, I can’t eat that my trainer would have a fit!” Or “I’m being so bad today eating all this food.” 

And of course, then there’s diet talk. People say things like “The diet starts tomorrow!” Or “I cut out sugar and carbs and has changed my life. I have so much energy now!”

Diet culture is so deeply embedded in our society that many of these comments go unexamined until there’s an eating disorder to consider. 

Of course, when your child has an eating disorder, these seemingly normal or even just boring comments suddenly seem charged. Noticing how much our society hates bodies and demonizes food is a serious wake-up call. And I’m glad you’re thinking ahead and wondering what it will be like with your family this year. 

Prepare yourself

So what I recommend is that you plan ahead as much as possible and prepare yourself and your family for the inevitable comments that are likely to be part of your extended family gatherings.

Many of us who are facing a tough struggle like a child who has an eating disorder want to just relax during the holidays. We want to not have to be so hyper vigilant and just chill out. I get it. 

But eating disorders don’t take time off for the holidays. And since eating disorder behaviors are often triggered by stress, we actually have to be extra thoughtful as we approach holiday events.

Get a piece of paper …

I suggest that you sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and write down the cast of characters who will be present at holiday gatherings. Think carefully about their habits and personalities. 

  • Have they made food or body comments in the past? 
  • Are they chronic dieters? 
  • Do they enjoy lecturing and feel righteous when they talk about weight and food?
  • Do they push food on others while simultaneously eating very little themselves? 

Write down comments and behaviors you can recall from past events. This is not about attacking anyone, and it’s not disloyal to just look at the facts of your family. 

This is about rooting yourself in reality, rather than attempting to avoid thinking about the problem. 

Plan on it

It’s important to know that no matter how much people care about your daughter, even if they know about the eating disorder, it is very likely that if they habitually discuss food and body stuff, they most likely will do it this year during the holidays.

Yes, even if they know your child is facing a life-threatening illness, even if they know how hard you have been working to save your child’s life, most people will do what they have always done. And if this includes food and body talk, you need to know that going in. 

Celebrating a holiday with family when there’s an eating disorder can be full of potential triggers.

Once you look at your list, maybe you realize that your family isn’t actually that bad and you’re going to be able to gently redirect conversations pretty easily. If so, that’s great! 

But if that’s not the case, and when you look at the list you feel overwhelmed and completely stressed out, you may want to just cancel the whole thing and just not go, and that may be necessary …

Set some boundaries

But before you make that decision, I want to see if there’s any room for a middle ground here.

Can you set some boundaries and expectations in advance of your holiday gatherings so that you can get what you’re looking for, being with your extended family without damaging your child’s eating disorder recovery? 

A boundary request

For example, if your sister, Carrie, is always on a diet and loves talking about what she’s not eating right now, could you call her before the event? 

Could you say something like, “Hey, Carrie, I know how much you care about health and wellness. I know it’s really important to you. But this year we’re dealing with some stuff around eating, and we’re being really careful about not talking about diets and weight. 

I know this is a big ask, but do you think you would be willing to not talk about calories, fat, sugar, weight, and other stuff this year? I wouldn’t ask you if it didn’t really matter to us. So please let me know, genuinely, if this is something you’re up for.”

What to do next

Now, you’ve made a request, and Carrie has the option of responding. You’re not making demands. You’re making a polite adult request.

And if your sister gets defensive and says “no,” that’s important information for you. In this case, I would consider your next steps very carefully. If Carrie’s focus on her weight and diet is at a toxic level, and she’s just told you in words or behavior that she’s not willing to change that, then I would consider not bringing your daughter into contact with Carrie this year. Is this devastating? Yes. I’m sorry.

If, on the other hand, your sister says that she will try her best, that gives you some important information, too. 

Now you can plan on your sister most likely saying something out of habit. But you can also hope she’s willing to work with you. 

If this is the case, you can come up with possible responses when your sister says something about her diet at a family gathering, for example, “Hey, Carrie, remember we talked about this?”

And what if your sister says she will avoid her typical diet monologues but does it anyway? You can remind her once, maybe even twice. And then it may be necessary to either distance your daughter from Carrie or leave the event entirely. 

Disrupting the status quo

These are hard things to do. Families operate like well-oiled machines. We all have well-established roles, and how we’ve always been within our families is typically how we will continue to be.

If Carrie has typically dominated the conversation with whatever is top of mind for her, then she’ll probably continue to do so. And if you have typically accepted that Carrie does this and have never challenged her, then you’ll be tempted to sit quietly even as you know her words are feeding your daughter’s eating disorder. 

An eating disorder in the family is a wake-up call that we need to make some changes in our family dynamics. It’s a moment when parents can rise to the occasion and overcome long-held beliefs about mental and physical health.

Be the change

You cannot change your family members, but you can change yourself. That is really the only power we have. 

So this holiday season, I encourage you to change your approach to your family in the holidays. Consider how you can uphold the values that will support your daughter’s recovery rather than upholding your family of origin’s dedication to the status quo, which may damage your daughter’s recovery. 

Overcoming an eating disorder is extremely hard. It requires taking big emotional risks. Are there some emotional risks that you could take to support your daughter’s recovery?

This is a tough situation to be in, but you may be surprised by how good it feels to face your family of origin head-on as a grown-up and a parent rather than in the role you held as a child.

Do your best

Rollie. I know the holidays are a tough time to try new things. I hope you’ll consider some of these options and that they help you decide how you can proceed this year and in the future.

At the end of the day, you just have to make the best decision you can, and I know you’re doing your best. I wish you your daughter and your whole family a very happy holiday.

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Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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