The holidays can be a stressful and challenging time for all of us. But, if you struggle with eating concerns, the holidays can be even more daunting. I often get asked by family and friends “How can I support my loved one during the holidays?” Well, this post is for you! In it I’ll outline some of the challenges of the holiday season for those who struggle with eating concerns, and specific ways you can provide extra love and support during this time. While I’ll be discussing eating concerns, know that these tips can be helpful for anyone to use this holiday season.
Don’t be afraid to express your concerns and communicate directly with your loved one. You may feel concerned about your loved one and yet feel hesitant to address your concerns directly. Concerns thrive with avoidance, so don’t be afraid to express your concerns directly. Do so gently, and express your good intent to help, but say what you need to say. No one benefits by walking on egg shells! Take your time and consider what needs to be said, and then find a quiet, one-on-one time to talk and express your concerns.
Ask how you can support your loved one. Make specific suggestions as your loved one may be hesitant to offer suggestions. Ask if it’s alright for you to check-in if you notice your loved one struggling. And then make sure you check-in. Focus on your loved one’s emotional coping, and have less emphasis on specific behaviors you may notice. For example, if you notice your loved one is anxious and struggling with eating appropriately, ask for a check in and speak to your loved one’s worry. Ask how you can help him or her feel more at ease. Would it help to take a bit of a time out? To have some extra support with food? Help navigating challenging conversations?
Focus More on the Holiday & Less on Food
For many of us, food is a big part of the holiday season and often becomes the focus of many celebrations. While it would be unreasonable—and unpleasant—to eliminate food as part of our celebrations, consider ways you might de-emphasize the focus on food. What traditions do you have that don’t focus on food? How big and long is the family dinner? Are there ways to simplify food preparation? Do you have a variety of food available for guests? Is it possible to retreat to the family room to visit rather than remaining around the dinner table? Is it reasonable to put food away rather than leaving it out all evening?
Simple shifts in managing food during the holidays can make a big difference for those struggling with eating concerns. It can also help other party goers who may be prone to mindless eating or overeating when large amounts of food are within arm’s reach.
Focus on the reasons you celebrate the season. What does it mean to be together as a family? What are your valued traditions? How do you connect with your values during the season? Talk with your loved one about the holiday, and identify meaningful ways to celebrate while de-emphasizing the focus on food.
Don’t Take Ownership for Your Loved One’s Concerns
It can be difficult to see your loved one struggle. Unfortunately, you may be prone to taking on guilt in these moments as a way of managing the pain of seeing your loved one struggle. Resist this temptation. It does you no good, and puts your focus on your perceived failures rather than on providing effective support to your loved one. Remember that there are many factors and paths to your loved one’s concerns, and spending time assigning blame is a complete waste of time.
Respect your loved one’s desires without trying to control challenging situations. Providing loving support conveys confidence in your loved one’s ability to navigate challenging situations while actively intervening conveys the message that your loved one is incapable and needs your active intervention. This can be a fine line, which is why it is so important to communicate actively about what kind of support can be helpful. Don’t make assumptions, but rather ask for specific direction.
With this in mind, don’t try to control situations or protect your loved one from concerns (as if you could). It’s likely that your loved one has carried this struggle for more than a minute, and may have more skills than you give her or him credit for. Provide love, support, empathy, and confidence, but don’t try and fight your loved one’s battles. If you’re not sure what may be helpful, always ask rather than assuming you know what is best. If your loved one becomes defensive or hostile, simply express your love and then give some breathing space.
Resist Commentary About Behaviors
Eating concerns draw attention to themselves. It can often be tempting to comment on behaviors, whether to congratulate what you perceive to be “good work” or to point out potential concerns. Resist this temptation! Many individuals are incredibly sensitive to commentary about eating behavior, and such comments tend to divide rather than unite. Common responses include getting angry, defensive, or going silent.
Individuals struggling in this way often feel as though they are under a microscope, and comments about eating behaviors only serve to reinforce this belief. Comments also tend to keep the focus on food, body image, and appearance. Instead focus on your loved one’s emotional coping and do so quietly and individually. If, for instance you notice behavior that is distracting, talk to your loved one in private and focus on your concern about their emotional well-being. Avoid comments about specific troublesome behaviors in the moment as this tends to fuel shame and guilt despite your best intentions.
Avoid Any Comments About Appearance
In my experience I have found there is no safe comment to be made when it comes to appearance. Even saying something you would love to hear yourself can be twisted into something negative for someone struggling with eating concerns. Plus, when it comes to eating concerns, there is too much focus on appearance and so avoiding these comments altogether communicates a desire to connect with the individual in more meaningful ways.
While the holidays can be challenging, they can also be a wonderful opportunity to connect and for your loved one to know and feel your love. Your attention to these recommendations along with your genuine care will do much to help carry your loved one through the holiday season.