Focus on Family, Instead of the Eating Disorder, During the Holidays
While the holidays are a wonderful time full of friends, family, and traditions for some, for others the holidays can be a time of tremendous fear.
If I could offer advice on conversing with a loved one with an eating disorder during the holidays, I would tell them this:
Avoid discussions about quantities or types of foods, diets, and body sizes to make the table safer for everyone.
For years, I worked with students in college who struggled with eating disorders and found that in November our work often shifted to working on the fears accompanied with going home for the holidays.
I often heard things like,
- “They will force me to eat.”
- “Everyone is going to see that I’ve gained weight.”
- “Everyone will be talking about their new diets and shaming themselves for the food they’ve eaten.”
- “Everyone will tell me that I’m too thin.”
- “Someone will comment on what I’m eating or what I’m not eating.”
Helping students work through these fears was often challenging because we can’t change family or societal dynamics while working with just one person.
And, unfortunately, our society has long approved of such questions being asked around dining tables. However, I have also worked with enough families to know that the purpose of such comments is not to injure and, more often than not, come from a good place.
A few years ago, I enlisted the help of some students to put together a group of suggestions for friends and family members to make the holiday table a safer place.
How to celebrate with someone who has an eating disorder during the holidays
- Focus on the holiday as a time to spend with loved ones instead of on food.
- Talk about subjects besides food.
- Focus on the experience of eating food (as delicious or flavorful) instead of on the calories or point values of food.
- Do not talk about diets, weight loss, or weight gain.
- Respect if a loved one needs to take some space or time away from family activities.
- Allow loved ones to make a dish that they would feel comfortable eating.
- Listen and provide support instead of offering advice.
- Ask loved ones privately if there are any ways that you could offer support.
Accountability often helps with making difficult changes, so I would suggest having a jar on the table and asking people to put some change in the jar if someone catches them talking about diets, weight loss, weight gain, body size, or food shaming and then choose a charity in which you can donate the money. Not only will this make it safer for everyone at the table to stop harmful conversations quickly, it will lighten the mood and benefit a greater cause (if making your table safe isn’t cause enough!)
Please share, print, post and use this to make your holiday table a safe one for everyone to enjoy! After all, the holidays are about coming together to enjoy and give thanks for one another!
Casey N. Tallent, Ph.D. is the National Collegiate Outreach Director for Eating Recovery Center.