How to Create a Safe Space for Loved Ones Going Through Eating Disorder Recovery This Holiday Season


While the holiday season is filled with lots of festivities and cheer there is a lot of stress that comes with it. In fact, studies show that mental health concerns actually spike in 50 - %60 of people during that time of year. This can be especially true for those that are struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image issues. These types of disorders are illnesses where people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. So, the many food-centered holidays from Halloween to New Year’s Eve are not exactly a cakewalk for those individuals. Not to mention, the added pressure of being around so many family members who know what you are going through. It puts an uncomfortable spotlight for anyone on the road to recovery.

It can also be a tough time of year for people who have loved ones that are struggling through these issues. We want this time of year to be filled with joy so it can be hard to watch someone you care about struggle so much. If you are in this boat, it is important to have a game plan for the holidays so your loved one doesn’t end up feeling uncomfortable. The last thing you want to do is make it harder on them. This article features all the do’s and don’t of creating a safe environment that will aid your loved one in recovery.

Make sure to stop yourself from falling into any of these common pitfalls.

Things to Avoid

When getting together for the holidays, there are some things you should avoid when approaching your loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder. Because you care about them, sometimes it can be hard to know what you should say or shouldn’t say and you may end up acting impulsively. To be prepared, check out this list of things you shouldn’t do.

  • Refrain from making comments about your loved one related to size or weight. After not seeing someone for a long time, it can be natural to comment on their appearance. However, when dealing with someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, comments like these can be very triggering. This is something they are hyper-aware of so bringing attention to it is not a good idea. Instead of commenting on weight or size, comment on a non-related physical attribute like hair or clothing. It is even better to comment on something non-physical like their attitude.
  • Don’t make comments or critiques related to their food choices. If you have not personally dealt with an eating disorder, it can be frustrating to watch people struggle with something as simple as eating a piece of pie. Just remember that while this task is simple to you, it is not to anyone who has a disorder. Eating disorders are only related to food on the surface. Underneath it all, there are layers of trauma and challenges that people have to deal with. Making comments like, “just eat” oversimplify the problem and will result in your loved one feeling invalid. Saying things like this will only make them feel like they cannot trust you and that you are not supportive.
  • Never call out any behavior in front of other friends or relatives. If you notice your loved one returning to an old pattern or a destructive behavior, do not think it is okay to bring awareness to this at a table full of people. Even if everyone at the table is aware of the situation, it is not appropriate to call even more attention to it. Your loved one is struggling and bringing them into the spotlight will not help at all. While you may see it as a loving act of kindness, a person struggling with an eating disorder will read this as an attack.
  • Stop yourself from directly calling out or judging your loved one if you think they may be purging or using laxatives. It can be very difficult to watch someone you care about harm themselves through purging, but it is important to watch how you react to things. It is altogether not a great idea to confront your loved one at a family gathering about the subject. If you do try to tackle it, make sure you are not being perceived as judgemental. You will automatically be labeled as someone who doesn’t understand you and they will never come to you or talk honestly with you about the subject again.
  • Do not lecture or oversimplify advice. If you go into a conversation with a loved one struggling with an eating disorder by acting like you know exactly what they are going through and know exactly how to fix it, you will be cut off. Aside from if you have gone through the same issues, you do not know how they feel and you don’t know how to fix things. Eating disorders are much more complex than food and weight. The root of every eating disorder contains trauma and deep psychological pain and is something that has to be addressed by professionals.
Follow these steps to provide a supportive environment for your loved one struggling with an eating disorder.

Things You Can Do That Show Support

Since we have covered what you shouldn’t do, it is important to let you know what you can do. You are not powerless in your loved one’s journey to recovery, although it may feel like it sometimes. Your job is to create a safe environment where your loved one can be honest and ask for help.

  • Tell your loved one you would like to talk to them about your concerns. When approaching the subject, let them know that you care about them, are concerned for them, and would like to talk to them in a private setting and at a convenient time. Create a safe space where there is no one else around. Make sure it is not taking away from their time enjoying the festivities. To be very clear, it can be helpful to state your intentions. Tell them that you love them and are concerned with the behavior you have been seeing. This sets clear boundaries and keeps your intentions from being misconstrued.
  • Speak in ways that focus on coping and support. Just letting your loved one know that you are there for them is a big step for many people who are struggling with an eating disorder. Many people get to a point where they realize they need help and have no idea where to ask for it. You can be very direct with your statements. Subtly let them know that you can tell they are struggling and that you are there when they need you. Ask them how you can support them. That is far as you need to do. If it sparks a conversation, great. If it doesn’t, you have planted a seed.
  • Reiterate that you are concerned about them. Since many holidays revolve around food like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, this time of year can be triggering for anyone recovering from an eating disorder. They are hyper-aware that everyone in the room is focused on eating and they can tell that everyone is paying attention to what they choose to eat in particular. This environment can really cause some negative thoughts in your loved one’s head. If you notice symptoms of their start to flare up, pull them aside to talk. Tell them you love them and explain that you are seeing some concerning things.
  • Make yourself a resource for a loved one who you believe is purging or using laxatives. As we talked about before, share your concerns with your loved one in a caring manner and in a private setting. Educate them on all the risks that go along with these dangerous behaviors. They may be unaware of how serious they are or hearing them come out of someone they care about’s mouth could push them to get some help. Make sure your tone is right during this conversation, you do know want to come off as if you are judging them or attacking them. Above anything else, just be there to listen whenever they need it.
  • Have other resourced prepared to show and educate your loved one. If you know your loved one has been struggling, you know that you are not always the best person for them to talk to when it comes to eating disorder recovery. It is always a good idea to be prepared for a breakthrough or breakdown. Have the contact information for a few different eating disorder specialists, eating disorder therapies, and some support groups your loved one could join. There are a ton of options for those recovering from eating disorders. Your goal should be to get your loved one to a specialist who can really help them.

The holidays can be a stressful time of year for anyone, but for those in eating disorder recover, the holidays may be especially challenging. By giving yourself the tools to create a positive and supportive environment for your loved ones, you ensure that this will be a more joyful holiday for everyone in your home.

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