4 Ways Families Can Support College Students Home for the Holidays

By Megan Simpson Teeter

The holiday season can be a time for family gatherings, festive celebrations and reconnecting with loved ones. For college students , it's a well-deserved break from the demands of academic life. However, for those who are navigating eating disorders or mood and anxiety disorders, a change in environment and routine during holiday break can bring a unique set of challenges. 

Here we’re offering expert advice on how to support college students facing these mental health concerns during their upcoming holiday visit.

1. Build flexible routines

Uncertainty and unpredictability can be especially challenging for individuals with eating disorders or mood and anxiety disorders. Offering a structured -- yet flexible – routine can provide a sense of security. Create a weekly calendar together, including (if necessary) treatment appointments, social engagements and home tasks. Display this calendar prominently to help your college student anticipate and plan for their days. 

Beth Ayn Stansfield , M.Ed., national family advocate at Eating Recovery Center (ERC), shares: "We all like to know what to expect. When we wake up in the morning, we like having some idea of what’s coming our way and what the day is going to bring. For our loved ones struggling or in recovery, the unknown and unpredictable can be extremely stressful and can truly interfere with recovery.” 

Stansfield suggests that establishing regular check-in times can alleviate the stress of unexpected conversations. Collaboratively, determine and set aside brief periods (no more than 30 minutes) earlier in the day for these check-ins. Plan on no more than two check-ins a week unless otherwise requested. During these times, parents can ask specific questions about their loved one's recovery journey. This structured approach ensures that important discussions surrounding recovery take place without overwhelming the college student.

Stansfield emphasizes the importance of routine by referencing the words of eating disorder researcher Nancy Zucker, PhD: "When someone is in recovery, one of the things that protects them is schedule and routine. Schedule and routine fill the space, pushing out the eating disorder."

2. Create a safe space

Embracing change and novelty

Returning home for the holidays can sometimes evoke anxiety, especially when faced with familiar surroundings that may have been associated with challenges in the past. To support your college student's well-being, consider encouraging them to:

  • Explore new hobbies. Suggest exploring new hobbies or activities together. Whether it's trying a candle making class, taking up a craft project or engaging in outdoor adventures, discovering new interests can be invigorating and provide a welcome distraction from any holiday-related stress.
  • Rediscover nature. Encourage your college student to spend time in nature, such as hiking in a nearby park or taking leisurely walks in scenic areas. Connecting with the outdoors can have a grounding effect and promote a sense of serenity.
  • Explore the local area. If feasible, suggest exploring your local community or nearby towns together as if you were tourists. Visit museums, historical sites or unique attractions that you may not have explored before. It's an opportunity both for discovery and for creating new memories.
  • Foster connections. Encourage your college student to connect with old friends who support their recovery or reach out to support networks they may have in your hometown. Rekindling positive relationships can provide on additional emotional support.

By embracing change and novelty during their holiday visit, your college student can navigate the familiar terrain with a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of curiosity. These activities not only reduce stress but also contribute to a more fulfilling and enriching holiday experience.

Preparing the physical space

Consider making subtle yet impactful changes to the home environment. Start by removing potential triggers, like a scale in the bathroom. In addition, you might consider the following:

  • Create a calming space. Focus on turning their bedroom into a calming space where they can escape and unwind if they need to throughout their stay. This might mean checking in with them before the visit to see what comfort items they’ll want on hand. 
  • Add greenery. Incorporate indoor plants or fresh flowers in the bedroom to introduce a touch of nature. Plants not only enhance aesthetics but also contribute to a calming atmosphere and improved air quality.
  • Try aromatherapy. Explore aromatherapy by introducing calming scents like lavender or chamomile in the bedroom. Aromatherapy diffusers or scented candles can create a soothing ambiance.
  • Incorporate music and sound. Consider a small music system or speakers where the college student can play their favorite calming music or nature sounds. Music can be therapeutic.
  • Set up distraction-free zones. Create distraction-free zones where the college student can engage in mindfulness practices, journaling or other self-care activities without interruptions.

“Parents can ask themselves where the eating disorder spent most of its time in the home and then make small changes in those spaces -- creating a fresh, new space," Stansfield suggests to families with loved ones specifically in the midst of eating disorder recovery.

For additional holiday-specific resources, check out Holiday Eating Disorder Recovery.

3. Focus on connection

Your college student is more than their struggle, and the holiday season is an excellent time to celebrate their individuality and the many aspects that make them unique. Engage in meaningful conversations about topics that bring joy, purpose and excitement to their lives. Encourage them to share their passions, interests and aspirations during your time together.

Stansfield notes that focusing on connection can be helpful: "Giving your child meaningful compliments throughout their stay, asking them for their opinion or advice on things, and displaying random acts of kindness can help build connection during visits home."

Find the joy

Explore what brings them joy, whether it's discussing a beloved book or movie, trying a new board game or simply taking a leisurely stroll in the park. Embrace the opportunity to connect over shared interests and experiences, and let them know that you value and appreciate their contributions to these conversations. By focusing on the positive aspects of their life beyond their illness, you can create meaningful moments and reinforce their sense of self-worth during the holiday season.

Express appreciation

Offer compliments based on your child’s attributes beyond appearance or health and express your gratitude for their presence. Compliments can boost their self-esteem and reinforce positive behaviors. Acknowledge their progress and the effort they've put into their recovery journey.

Perform acts of kindness

Small acts of kindness can go a long way in building connection. Share uplifting emojis, notes or gestures of affection to remind your loved one that you care deeply for their well-being.

4. Share that help is available

In addition to the strategies mentioned above, you can explore further resources specifically tailored to college students facing mental health challenges.

  • Eating Recovery At Home and Pathlight At Home: If your college student needs more intensive treatment and support, this virtual intensive outpatient program can be an ideal option.
  • College student support groups: Consider connecting your college student with support groups of other young people who know what they are going through this holiday season.
  • Say It Brave on Campus: Check out the latest virtual community events addressing the complexities of student mental health, supported by leading national nonprofit partners and resource guides.

Supporting a college student with an eating disorder or mood and anxiety disorder during the holidays requires understanding, empathy and a proactive approach. By creating a warm and compassionate environment, establishing routines and focusing on the individual beyond their illness, families can make the holiday season a time of healing, connection and joy. 

Written by

Megan Simpson Teeter

Megan is a copywriter and content strategist with over a decade of experience and a background in psychology. Having had some training in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy, and as a woman in…

Eating Recovery Center is accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

Organizations that earn the Gold Seal of Approval™ have met or exceeded The Joint Commission’s rigorous performance standards to obtain this distinctive and internationally recognized accreditation. Learn more about this accreditation here.

Joint Commission Seal