Place setting for the holiday representing the difficulty faced for teens with eating disorders

Chronic Illness • Dec 08, 2021

Supporting Teens with Eating Disorders During the Holidays

The holidays bring up many emotions and images for people. Food and family gatherings are at the center of plans and memories for most of us.  For teens struggling with eating disorders, the holidays can be the toughest time of the year.

Difficulties for teens with anorexia nervosa

When people have restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, the pressure of being in environments with so much food is overwhelming. People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of gaining weight. Often even smelling food or seeing people eat can give them tremendous internal distress. Eating in front of other people is also often stressful because they may fear that others are judging them for what they eat.

Difficulties for teens with bulimia nervosa

For people with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, the holidays represent another sort of challenge with triggering foods. Additionally, with so much access to food they may have increased binges and purges.  People with bulimia will also have to grapple with the presence of family members in their homes when they purge and the self-loathing and guilt that can follow binge and purge cycles.

How to support your teen

It can be difficult as a family member of someone with an eating disorder to know what to do to be helpful and supportive. Overall, it is helpful to move the focus of your holiday celebrations away from food and eating when you can. Plan activities that you can enjoy together like playing games, seeing holiday lights, or watching movies.

Avoid making comments about what people are eating or not eating, and do not talk about your loved one’s appearance (even positive comments). Steer clear of saying things about your own eating or overeating. Also, avoid discussing how you need to “go to the gym” after that meal. This can also cause a lot of anxiety for people with eating disorders. If you see someone with an eating disorder struggling, it is kind and supportive to ask them how you can help and how they are feeling if you have the kind of relationship with them.

Tips directly from teens with eating disorders

At the Center for Change Eating Disorder Treatment Center, patients with eating disorders were surveyed and gave suggestions for ways families could support them during the holidays.  Some of their suggestions were:

  • Ask how they are doing and see if they need any help.
  • Do not become angry about how they feel but offer a lot of support.
  • Be aware of what may be creating anxiety and try and understand what they feel. Be understanding, kind, and supportive.
  • Spend quality time with your loved one.
  • Make sure that the primary focus of the holiday is not on the food but rather on the family and the valued time you will share together.
  • Allow for other activities that do not involve food, such as games, singing carols together, opening gifts, decorating, and spending time just talking together.
  • Help them take their mind off of food by generating a conversation with them about general or important topics.
  • Don’t allow them to excessively isolate.

And most important, during the holiday season for teens with eating disorders and for ALL teens, let them know they are loved.