Thanksgiving can be tricky when struggling with an eating disorder

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. If you or a loved one has eating issues or an eating disorder, this holiday can be especially challenging!

If you or your loved one are using Family Based Treatment or some other parent/support-welcomed-to-be-involved treatment for the eating disorder treatment, here are some potentially helpful tips and reminders:

Holiday celebrations can raise anxiety both for carers and sufferers alike. For the person struggling with the eating disorder, eating around others can feel very, very uncomfortable. Additionally, holiday meals are often associated with eating to excess, which can also feel especially stressful.

Talk with (not talk at) your person who is struggling with eating issues—and vice versa. What are the fantasies about and fears for Thanksgiving? Try making a plan prior in case fears shift to reality.

Meals at the most familiar home may be easier than eating at a family member’s or friend’s house. Try having a discussion with your person to work out the logistics.

Figure out table seating. If the person struggling may have difficulty at dinner or with the food, maybe the person can sit either next to or between two people who know about the struggles and can support/encourage in discreet ways (especially if the rest of the invitees are not aware of the eating disorder or eating problems).

If there is a meal agreement or meal plan, discuss it ahead of time—even who will be plating the food. And, if the person struggling won’t be serving oneself, discuss how the food will be plated without drawing attention. How will you handle dessert? How long is the person struggling expected to stay at the table?

What if the person struggling needs breaks? If purging is present, this may need to be arranged to avoid places where purging could easily be tempting.

If table conversation might be experienced as uncomfortable or triggering for you or your person, is there a code word or sign to change to subject? Who knows about it? What subjects feel supportive and safe? Maybe have a list of conversation starter topics ready to go in your mind. Maybe involve the family in a gratitude exercise.

Try and keep conversations focused on safe topics and be aware that topics such as looks, body, numbers, grade rankings, etc. can feel potentially uncomfortable or pressuring to the person struggling.

During such a food-focused and potentially challenging holiday, do you or does your person need to enlist additional support outside the family via phone or text access? If so, how can that be supported and understood while so many family demands might be pulling people in different directions?

Finally, if you or your person is struggling, at what point might it be appropriate to have a time out? What about a lovely stroll to get some air and breathe with a trusted loved one? If things are really challenging, parameters for an exit plan may need to be discussed.

IMPORTANT FOR BOTH THE CARERS AND FOR THOSE STRUGGLING: If things don’t go the way you or your person plans for meals, family interactions, etc., it does not mean you or they have “blown it.” It means there are some lessons and growth that can happen from this. Brush yourself off, trust that time will allow the lessons to emerge, and get right back on your path towards the full and meaningful life desired!

*Thanks, Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, for your contributions to this article!


*If you might be struggling with an eating disorder or know someone who is, it is your responsibility to seek professional medical and mental health advice.  This article is not a substitute for either.


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