How to support someone with an eating disorder this holiday season
The holiday season is fast approaching and while most of us look forward to it, it can be an especially difficult time for people living with an eating disorder or struggling with their relationship with food.
Between the increased chatter about food and eating experiences, and seeing family and friends that we may not have seen for a long time, the holidays can understandably bring up some stress and anxiety.
It can feel difficult to find the right words or actions to support a loved one living with an eating disorder, so we’ve put together this blog in hope of helping guide you.
Here are a few tips on supporting someone with an eating disorder this holiday season:
Take the time to learn about the complexities and effects of eating disorders.
There is so much information available. Podcasts, books, articles and organisational websites can help you to better understand and support your loved one. You may find it helpful to use the resources available to you to reflect on your understanding of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are a complex mental illness. Everyone will have different needs and boundaries but building a baseline understanding of what your loved one is going through and an appreciation of some strategies that can be helpful (and unhelpful), is a great place to start.
Some resources we recommend:
Butterfly Foundation – Eating disordered explained
Headspace – Understanding disordered eating and eating disorders – for family and friends
How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder [Book]
Navigating their way to Health – A brief guide to supporting someone with the challenges, treatments and pathways to recovery from an eating disorder
There is also a comprehensive list of resources for families & carers here.
Ask them ‘How can I best support you?’
Know that your loved one might struggle to express what they need from you during this time as it can be hard for them to speak up against their eating disorder voice. Just know that they will really benefit from you showing up, being there and listening without judgement. Your loved one’s therapy team can really support here.
It can be helpful to build a plan with your loved one if this is something they would find helpful. For example:
- Ensuring there is a place for your loved one to take a break if they need to
- Choosing a signal for them to let you know they are having a hard time and would like support. This could look like a gesture, hand signal or a phrase e.g. “X can you help me with something outside?”. Make sure to discuss with them ahead of time the type of support they would like e.g. talking through what they are feeling, doing a guided meditation together, validation or just your presence.
- Helping distract your loved during the eating experience if this helps reduce their anxiety, for example, playing music, colouring, talking about their favourite topic.
- Shifting the focus after the meal to an activity that doesn’t centre around food. For example, Christmas-inspired charades, minute to win it, scattergories, murder mystery, ring toss. You can find printable game sheets and ideas if you search “Christmas Party Games” in your web browser.
Avoid commenting on physical appearance and eating patterns.
Even if you think it is a compliment or it is directed at another person, we invite you to put a stop to conversations that centre around food and body image. Your loved one’s eating disorder voice is already so critical of their eating and body, that we are sure they’d appreciate a break from having to think about this.
If you know there will be other family or friends present that tend to make comments about food, diets or bodies, it can be helpful to have a few phrases ready to quickly shut down the conversation. For example:
- While we are talking about food, I had the most amazing meal with [name] at [location] not long ago, have you seen them lately/have you been there before?
- Someone else’s [food choices/body] is really none of our business. They are so much fun to be around.
- Let’s just focus on enjoying ourselves.
Seek guidance from a professional that specialises in eating disorders
- A trusted GP or Paediatrician
- Mental Health Professional e.g. Psychologist, Psychiatrist
- Accredited Practising Dietitian
Whether you are a partner, parent, guardian, friend or colleague, know that your support means the world, and it’s okay to not know how to respond or react.
Eating disorder support/helplines:
Butterfly Foundation 1800 33 4673
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
Headspace 1800 650 890
Written by Andriana Rudnytski, Accredited Practising Dietitian