If you have a teenager with an eating disorder, Christmas is potentially the most stressful time of year for both of you. Our food-focussed culture goes into overdrive, with endless pre-planning, talk and focus around what will be on the dinner table on Christmas day.
We know that several factors influence the onset of disordered eating and eating disorders including binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Socio-cultural influence is one such risk-factor, along with genetic and biological causes and psychological factors. For teens experiencing an eating disorder, Christmas poses a host of socially confronting situations based around social pressures and cultural norms.
Planning is your best defence around Christmas day difficulties
For the parents of teens with eating disorders, there is more to planning a happy and healthy Christmas than remembering to order the turkey and how to fit twenty relatives around a six-seater dining table.
Subscribing to the old adage, ‘planning to fail is failing to plan’, the best way to help teens with eating disorders make it through Christmas unscathed is by planning and implementing support strategies.
Ten tips to get teens with eating disorders through Christmas day
Based on the recommendations of Australia’s leading eating disorder organisations, we’ve come up with ten practical strategies to help parents and teens feel relaxed and comfortable about Christmas day dining:
Tip 1: Communication
Open communication is the key to ensuring you and your teen are on the same page about Christmas lunch. As part of your Christmas planning phase, ask your teen how they’re feeling about Christmas day meal times. Listen without judgment, accept that they may find it difficult and provide empathy and support so they know they’re not dealing with difficult feelings and situations alone. Be prepared for emotions that get out of control and ensure you have a plan of how to support their feelings.
Tip 2: Consultation
Include your teen in discussions about the Christmas day menu, factor in any meal plans you may already have and ensure include foods they would like to eat (‘safe foods’). Keeping in mind you want to reduce any feelings of stress or negativity around food, defer to your teen and ensure their preferred foods sit alongside traditional Christmas foods, with no judgement.
Tip 3: Pre-warn guests
Sensitively provide your guests with general and basic information around eating disorders in advance, and ask them not to comment on your teenager’s diet, eating practices, size or shape. In fact, make a rule that discussions around food and eating practices are banned.
Tip 4: Give your child permission to walk away
Let your teenager know in advance that it will be perfectly acceptable to walk away from any conversations that trigger them.
Tip 5: Plan diversions
Plan what to do if the no-discussion topics do come up. Your strategies to deal with the inevitable conversational slip-up might include loudly changing the subject, telling a joke, invoking a Christmas tradition or simply saying (with a smile) ‘perhaps that’s a topic for another time’ before redirecting the conversation elsewhere.
Tip 6: Create new traditions
Make the day about traditions other than food. Plan to tidy all food away immediately after lunch and then engage everyone in a tradition such as an indoor or outdoor game, a post-lunch walk, a family movie, or present-opening time.
Tip 7: Plan an escape
If you’re invited elsewhere for Christmas lunch, plan an escape strategy for your teen if they need a break. Agree on a sign, and support your teen by changing the topic of conversation or giving them an excuse for time out – perhaps they could walk the family’s dog, go for a swim, or simply take some time to sit away from everyone in a quiet space with a book or music.
Tip 8: Arm yourselves with supportive resources and supportive people
Pre-arrange resources that your teen can rely on if needed. Podcasts, meditations, yoga videos, yoga nidra, or phone support lines can help your teen to deal with difficult emotions and triggering situations. Arrange others to support your plan, in case you need someone to ‘tap in’ and lend a hand.
Tip 9: Take care of yourself
If you are organised early, have help on hand, make sure you allocate time for you to enjoy the day yourself. Being calm yourself will help you be patient, stay positive and help your teen have a positive experience.
Tip 10: More planning!
Plan a relaxed, happy and healthy day with a schedule of festivities that keep everyone engaged, active and enjoying a range of activities that aim to connect people and not based solely around food and drink.
You can find more support via the National Eating Disorder Collaboration’s (NEDC) list of localised Australia-wide support centres, while public and private expert support can be found via your health professional, local hospital, the Butterfly Foundation and Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV).