Everyone in our field knows that the Holiday season provides special challenges to those with eating disorders, be those restricting, bingeing and purging or predominantly bingeing eating disorders. Add to this the fact that this is typically a very important time of year to children and you have, well, a mess. It’s over in January though, and that’s the good news!
What makes it a mess? Holidays raise expectations in everyone, expectations that even for adults are often not met and sometimes engender disappointment. Families usually try to get together—a good thing, of course, but also a challenging one. For children in treatment for their eating disorder, comments by well-intended (but frankly uninformed) relatives can cause pain and even panic: “You sure look better” (read “fatter”); or, “it’s nice to see you eating again”, or even (horrors!) “why honey, you are eating more than I am! That’s great!” Tears, meltdowns and tantrums can follow. Then there’s everyone joking about bingeing, a word now popularized by streaming video (“binge watching”): bingeing on cookies, bingeing on candy canes. People also talk thoughtlessly about their dieting. Not to mention the vicarious “eating” many people with anorexia nervosa report, where they spend a great deal of time cooking, and especially baking, treats for everyone else but don’t touch them themselves. There are well intended attempts to get our kids to eat treats (“Grandma made them especially for you”) which can result in guilt and subsequent attempts to restrict food intake and/or attempts to get rid of the sweets by exercising or even vomiting. Wow. We should ask ourselves, is it worth it?
So how to navigate this mess? Well, our only defense has been to think ahead. If you are in the throes of treatment, perhaps a single Christmas should be sacrificed for the sake of merry ones to come, once your child is well. If you have an large, unruly extended family (like I do), why not skip the big get-together this year? Have a quiet time at home with fewer people: play Monopoly, Scrabble, work a puzzle, volunteer at a shelter. If that is not your plan, and you choose to have the “Christmas as usual”, don’t let the structure of the days get lost. Since school is out, this is easy to do. Stick to regular meals, no skips, no binges. Refuse to let your child engage in “vicarious eating” projects—but have something fun for them to do to take their place. If your child is precarious medically, and struggling to gain weight, remember that shopping can involve hours of walking (and miles!), without anyone really noticing. Better to do it online. Celebrating with a plan will minimize panic and believe me, I am not making this stuff up; many parents could tell you stories of “Holiday meal panic” that might have been averted with a little more forethought. Easier said than done with everything else that’s going on, of course, but still necessary.
How to make lemonade of lemons from the mess and return to the joy? Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, just about everyone can get behind the values of gratitude and giving. So this Holiday season, this Christmas, can be celebrated not as a food fest but as one where even children can reflect on their family, their friends, their pets and their good fortune. We are lucky enough to live where we do, after all. Help younger children make presents that are meaningful to their recipients. Engage older kids in ideas about how they can give to their friends and families in ways that do not involve food (or buying stuff). For example, help them to focus away from food and towards decorating the house, the tree, the garden, their rooms. Help them to understand that there are children—many of them—who do not have what they do, and consider volunteering during this season: at an animal shelter, a church or school. Even if that doesn’t happen, the discussion about gratitude and family will stay with them. This is surely the real spirit we all wish to engender. And from this spirit, the joy.
And back to January, my favorite month. By January 1st, it’s all behind us. The slate is now clean, a new year of healing, hope and growth lies ahead of us. Let’s focus on that.