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10th Dec 2021

How to support a loved one with an eating disorder this Christmas

Sarah McKenna Barry

Christmas can be a difficult time for many, especially those with eating disorders.

While Christmas can be a happy time for some, many people dread the festive period and feel anxious as the holidays approach.

This is particularly true if you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder. Around this time of year, food comes under the microscope, and there is pressure to “eat, drink and be merry”, as well as an unhelpful focus on “holiday weight” as we head into the new year.

With HSE figures from earlier this year showing that there has been a rise in the number of children with eating disorders in Ireland, parents are on higher alert than ever before. We caught up with Ellen Jennings from Bodywhys to gauge how we can best support those with eating disorders this Christmas.

For starters, Ellen underlines how it’s important to remember that eating disorders are about feelings rather than particular behaviours, and that these feelings can become intensified around Christmas.

“If you can see that the person’s mood has changed, you can see they’re feeling stressed, think about how you might open up that conversation,” Ellen says. “When someone puts those feelings into words, it can reduce the intensity of those feelings.”

Ellen notes that the lack of routine often associated with Christmas may cause people with eating disorders to feel anxious, and that incorporating some elements of routine into the holiday may be helpful.

“We don’t need to have more rules, but keeping some things the same may make it a little less overwhelming. So that could be their eating routine, or maybe they want to go out and get some fresh air.”

She adds that down-time is still important, and that people with eating disorders shouldn’t feel that they are constantly on the go.

“Maybe this Christmas, let’s not talk about anyone’s appearance.”

It’s also helpful to acknowledge that a person isn’t their eating disorder.

“They didn’t choose the eating disorder,” Ellen says. “It’s just there. If they have coping mechanisms to see that it’s separate from them, it creates that distance.”

Christmas dinners can lead to conversations about weight, dieting, and oftentimes, a person with an eating disorder may feel like they’re under a microscope if they join family members for dinner. With this in mind, Ellen says setting ground rules can help prevent triggering conversations.

“You could say, ‘Maybe this Christmas, let’s not talk about anyone’s appearance.’ Instead, focus on asking people how they’re feeling, rather than the focus on appearance or what they’re eating.

“We know that eating disorders distort comments, even comments that are well-intentioned, like praise. Like, the day after. Instead of saying, ‘It seems you got on well, well done,’ just say ‘How do you feel about it? How was it for you?’

“This shifts the focus towards what that person is thinking or feeling, rather than behaviours or their appearance or what they’re eating.”

“It’s OK for things not to be perfect.”

Arguments, Ellen notes, are also bound to happen in any family around Christmas, but it’s also important to allow them to happen, and to make up afterwards.

“It’s OK for disagreements to happen and to make up, because that demonstrates to the person that it’s OK for things not to be perfect. Recovery is about learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without using food to cope.

“Christmas is all about connection, so if you can focus on that rather than things having to be perfect. Have non-food related activities that could be incorporated into the day. Think about what that person enjoys, and what might take their mind off things for a while.”

As the new year approaches Ellen advises those supporting loved ones with eating disorders to be aware of diet talk, and their own language.

“Try to be self-compassionate and model that behaviour to the person you’re supporting.”

Bodywhys’ services and resources remain open throughout the Christmas holidays. Coping tips and suggestions for those experiencing eating disorders can be accessed here.

If you have been affected by any of the details in this story you can contact Bodywhys on 01-2107906 or email [email protected].