For many, Christmas is a joyful time. It’s an opportunity for people to come together, celebrate, and reflect on the past year. However, when someone we love is suffering with an eating disorder, it can be incredibly hard to know how to support them and ‘what to do’, particularly when Christmas presents such specific challenges.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder is a unique and challenging role. A whole lot of emotions can arise as we attempt to make sense of someone’s difficulties and how they express themselves through food behaviours. If you, reading this, are currently in this position, take a moment to pause and recognise the difficulty of this role and grant yourself compassion for doing all you can with what you have.
Below, we’ve collated some suggestions for supporting your loved one over the festive period.
Check in with your loved one
Eating disorders thrive in isolation, so opening up communication is vitally important and helps lessen the hold of the eating disorder.
Ahead of the festivities, take a moment to check in with them and simply ask them what they might need from you. They may struggle to answer this question, or flat out refuse to communicate for a while. But what’s important is that they know that you’re there if and when they need you. This alone is immensely powerful.
Avoid diet talk and unhelpful comments about food or body weight
Christmas celebrations tend to focus around food and eating, and whilst many can enjoy this aspect of Christmas, people with eating disorders can find this incredibly overwhelming.
As much as possible, avoid diet talk that could fuel the ‘voice’ of the eating disorder (e.g. suggesting you’ll have to compensate for the food eaten with exercise, dieting, etc). Engaging in talk that labels food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can exacerbate someone’s fixation on food at Christmas.
What’s more, whilst someone avoiding and struggling with food at the table can stick out like a sore thumb, avoid comments that could shame someone for their struggles. If you see your loved one struggling, gently and quietly offer your support if they need it.
Simply put, be mindful of how you’re talking about food and eating around someone who struggles with just that.
Know your boundaries
When someone is struggling and in need of a lot of support, it’s easy to feel compelled to be by their side 24/7 in an attempt to ‘fix’ them ourselves. However, as much as we want to do what we can for our loved one, we have to put ourselves first.
It’s vitally important that your energy levels remain intact so that you can support them when they really need you. This will mean stepping away at times when you intuitively want to stay close, but keep in mind that this also gives them space to have agency over their recovery.
Model ‘normal’ behaviour
Similar to our point about, it’s important to model the behaviour that you’d like your loved one to develop. This includes asserting boundaries as well as normalising core aspects of life: eating, socialising, and coping with down time.
During Christmas, this means having the Christmas that you want to have, holding in mind that you are allowed to enjoy Christmas like everyone else, and your enjoyment will help reflect that this time of year is something they can one day look forward to.
And finally, hold onto hope
So many emotions can arise when a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, but most importantly, it’s important to hold onto hope that recovery is possible. Keep in mind that they are not their eating disorder, and there will be ups and downs. Holding onto hope will help them to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you’re keeping it bright for them.