6 Ways to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

dining table

How do I support my daughter with negative body image during Thanksgiving? How do I help my mom who has an eating disorder during the holidays? I don’t know how to help my brother during holiday meals. I hear these questions from families leading up to the holidays each year.

It could be your daughter, son, sibling, spouse, parent, or other loved one who has an eating disorder, negative body image, or struggles with their relationship with food. And you may be wondering how to support them during the holidays.

Or maybe you’re the one who doesn’t have a very healthy relationship with food and can’t quite figure out how others can support your journey in recovery. It’s no secret that Thanksgiving is a food-centered holiday. That’s why being prepared is so important. Keep reading to learn 6 helpful ways to help a loved one with body image issues during the holidays.

1. Don’t comment on their body, appearance, what’s on their plate, or how much (or little) they’re eating.

Negative body image, eating disorders, and poor relationships with food all have a few things in common. The two I want to focus on are shame and control. When others notice the “problem” of the eating disorder, your daughter may feel shame that she couldn’t hide it better. If someone comments on your wife’s weight loss, she feels shame that she still isn’t comfortable in her body. As you mention the additional serving of dessert that your son is getting, shame creeps in that he’s been “found out” or “couldn’t control his eating”.

As shame enters, so does control. The daughter who has better been trying to hide her secret eating disorder works harder to control how others view her. And the wife who hates her body become hyper-focused on controlling how she looks. The son who has been over-eating attempts to control his emotions through food. 

As you can see, commenting on food, appearance, and portion sizes will not be helpful for your loved one. Instead, comments can send them in a downward mental and emotional spiral that may amplify unhealthy the unhealthy behaviors that you’re trying to prevent! 

2. Don’t comment on your own body, diet, or portion sizes either!

Remember those shame and control spirals I mentioned earlier? Yeah… those can be sparked by you commenting on your own eating, body, or diet as well.

3. Plan an after-meal activity that keeps the family around the table (or engaged at least) for a while after the meal.

If you’re not sure why I’d suggest this one – let me share more. First, if your loved one has a pattern of purging after meals, having an activity immediately following the meal allows a natural distraction that’s more helpful than white-knuckling it.

But maybe purging isn’t an issue for your loved one – is this still helpful? I’d argue that it is! Because we all know that feeling of “I-ate-too-much-and-now-I’m-uncomfortable”. That feeling isn’t fun! And guess what? That feeling can be much more damaging for those who have eating disorders, negative self-image, or unhealthy relationships with food. That feeling can spark a shame cycle. Or it can lead those with emotional eating habits or binge eating disorders to further comfort themselves through more food (the very cycle they may be working so hard to end)! 

So if everyone does their own thing after the meal, not much distraction is provided to help keep that vicious cycle from rearing its ugly head. But an engaging activity can provide some distraction! 

Some ideas may be a board game, a craft, a puzzle, or going for a walk around the neighborhood!

4. Help your loved one move the dinner conversation in helpful directions, if needed. 

Maybe that great aunt with no filter is going to be at Thanksgiving and you all *know* she’s going to go on and on about how much exercise she needs to burn off each food item on her plate. 

Or maybe it’s a younger sibling or cousin who will inevitably (and likely innocently) point out someone’s weight gain. 

Whatever the “triggering topics” might be, connect with your loved one so you can help run defense. What are the topics that lead to unhelpful thought patterns? One of those topics come up? Help abruptly change the topic to discussing Christmas plans, favorite movies, or literally anything else that can be a relieving change of subject for your loved one. 

Even if this isn’t something you end up needing to do during the meal, it can help your child, sibling, or spouse feel more comfortable heading into the meal knowing someone else is looking out for them. 

5. Find out whether distraction or mindfulness is more important for your loved one during meals. 

For some, staying distracted from overthinking the calories, the quantities, etc about food can help make mealtime easier. Those individuals can be supported by including them in the table conversation and engaging with them when they seem checked-out or in their head. 

Others live on the other end of the spectrum, needing space to be mindful during the meal. For example, they may need to be presently in contact with their body, emotions, and sensations throughout the meal to help them maintain a healthy relationship with both food and their body. For these individuals, allowing them more space to stay mindful is the best way to support them during the meal. 

6. Do what you can to enjoy the meal!

Nothing feels worse for someone in recovery to feel like they need so much special attention during the meal that it takes away from the family’s fun. It adds to the shame and cycle of control that “I must preform perfectly during this meal to ensure my family is ok”. That’s a whole lotta pressure!

Instead, recognize that one bad meal won’t make or break someone. Further, recovering from an eating disorder, unhealthy relationship with food, and negative self-image is a process. And our loved ones are so much more than their eating disorders.

If you have a loved one with an eating disorder/body image issues/poor relationship with food, discuss this list with them to see what they may want & need help with. If you can relate to having an eating disorder, negative body image, or poor relationship with food, consider sharing this list with a loved one for added support during the holidays. For further ideas, you can read this list created by the National Eating Disorders Association. And if you or your loved one needs professional support in these areas, please reach out here and I’d love to discuss services I offer or help you find a therapist in your area!

A more meaningful life
is closer than you realize
And it’s worth pursuing

© Allie Shivener Counseling LLC 2021 | All rights reserved.