Holiday Eating When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder

Turkey. Pumpkin pie. Hannukah gelt. Eggnog. Christmas cookies.

Sounds delicious, right? Essential elements of holiday joy? Except when your child has an eating disorder.

When you have a child with anorexia, bulimia, overeating or orthorexia, even ordinary meals are torture sessions. Your child gets anxious if you watch what they eat (or don’t eat) too closely – so you pretend not to put away your microscope, but you have to keep tabs, as part of your job as a parent of a child with an eating disorder is to keep track of what they eat. Then, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, add in concerned but uninformed relatives who ask too many nosy questions, the stress inherent to the holidays, the focus on indulgent comfort foods, and many other children running around. Quickly, holiday meals, and the holidays themselves, can become a nightmare.

Unfortunately, the statistics about kids and eating disorders today are pretty grim, according to The Healthy Teen Project:

  • 95% of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25 
  • 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming overweight.
  • Among high-school students, 44% of females and 15% of males attempted to lose weight.
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
  • Over one half of teenage girls and nearly one third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors (ex, skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, purging)

In other words, eating disorders are serious business, not to be dismissed or ignored. Even during holiday festivities and chaos. Fortunately, there is a lot of help for parents with kids who have eating disorders, and good advice is available online.

This is good advice for anyone, but holiday overscheduling can be especially destructive when layered on top of the stress of helping a teenager recover from an eating disorder. Don’t let your family skip meals, don’t turn to fast food in a pinch, and make healthy family eating a priority, even if it means missing holiday festivities or trimming your gift list.

  • Give yourself and your children ways to connect with loved ones in ways that don’t center around food or shopping. Go skating. Play cards around the dinner table. Decorate the tree. Drive around the neighborhood to look at lights. Watch holiday movies. When you consciously look for non-food-centric activities, there are actually many joyous ways to celebrate while avoid the tension and anxiety of food.

This is tricky. But lots of well-meaning relatives and friends, who may see your children only during the holidays, inadvertently make kids feel ashamed about how their appearance has changed in a year. Surprisingly, to me at least, some people think it’s productive to comment on whether a child has gained or lost weight, and is eating too much or too little during holiday meals. Ask relatives in advance not to comment on your child’s appearance or food choices. Explain that you are working together on the problem, and that too much attention will make the issues worse. Ditto for shopping for clothes, which can be as torturous as eating for a kid with a distorted body perception. Ask grandma to buy something besides clothing this year.

  • Last but not least, it’s always smart to make food and body image an “open subject” in your family. Talk to your children about your own experiences accepting your body, and offer sympathy with their struggles. Listening to our children is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things you can do as a parent – especially a parent to teenagers. But listening is one of the most priceless gifts you can give your children, at anytime of the year.