National Eating Disorders Association

How to Survive the Holidays When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

Nancy Hemendinger, Suzanne Oliver, and Lorri Antosz Benson

When your child is struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays can be a complicated time for the whole family. With that in mind, we're sharing our best tips on how your family can have a peaceful and healthy holiday season.

Keep Your Celebrations Simple

Focus on taking care of yourself, your family, and your family member suffering or recovering from an eating disorder. Make a concerted effort not to fall into striving for the perfect family holiday represented in the commercial and media world.  

ED has changed your day-to-day life, so your traditions and the way you approach the holidays will be different. Keep things simple. One way to connect with family members is by working on jigsaw puzzles together. Working on jigsaw puzzles and focusing on the same image for longer periods can induce a certain calmness and peace of mind. The mind focuses only on the image and will concentrate on this alone, leaving less room for ED thoughts and ruminations.

There is no perfect holiday, just perfect holiday images on commercials and in the media. For those a little further along in recovery, attending a religious service or helping others in need may keep the holiday season in perspective. Singing holiday music increases endorphins and creates connections to others, which is another protective factor in keeping ED quieted. Use this time for connecting to others in a peaceful manner, and to catch up on rest.    

Avoid Comparisons 

Have compassion for yourself, your spouse, your loved one struggling with an eating disorder, and your entire family. You are all under stress, and emotions can manifest themselves in ways you haven’t experienced before. Try to set realistic expectations. This year may not be on your holiday season top ten list, but you can still experience happiness, laughter, and gratitude with the people you love. We found it helpful to speak to our family therapist and our daughter’s therapist before the holidays to ask for advice, to discuss concerns, and to work out a plan that would balance family togetherness and tradition with each person’s individual needs as we strove to support our daughter’s recovery while buffering the negative impact on her younger brothers.   

Try not to compare this holiday to others. You are where you are, and, with help, you will figure out how to get through it. Allow yourself and your family some indulgences that feel good even if they are not part of your tradition – an afternoon of movie-watching, a game night with another family, an afternoon at an indoor water park, ski hill, or ice skating rink. Be flexible and loving. Prepare for complaints and plan your response. Setting boundaries for your children that reflect your family’s values will help you keep your balance through this difficult time.  

Don’t Be Ashamed of Getting Help

My recommendation is to be open and honest, and to make sure the other children know that they are just as important to you and your spouse as the loved one with the disorder. And I highly recommend early intervention with family therapy. Even elementary school-aged children need a place where they can feel safe to express anger or fear. My middle child felt trapped between wanting to help her sister, and wanting to keep her secrets. Family therapy gave her a safe place to talk about her fears without betraying her sister. It was remarkably helpful.

Remember: family therapy only means that you need a little help to keep a terrible scourge from overtaking your family. It gives your family a chance to fight back…together.