When it comes to eating disorders during the year-end holiday season, a “cope ahead plan” can include a list of people your loved one can turn to for support; an outline of the day, including a list of who will be in attendance, the menu and planned activities; and a safe word if your loved one starts feeling overwhelmed. In addition, invite your loved one to make a dish of their own to share, and most importantly, honor the plan you create.
Do not be the food police. Someone with an eating disorder or in recovery already spends a significant amount of time noticing what goes in their bodies and what they are eating. Don’t add to that stress. Avoid labeling foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. This only reinforces negative food beliefs, leading to heightened feelings of guilt, anxiety and shame. Do not pressure your loved one to try a specific food or add more to their plate. Those who struggle with eating disorders, already having a hard time being present for a meal, try not to make it worse.
Avoid comments on how much or how little a person is eating, and do not give loud, dramatic praise for when your loved one does eat.
Be an ally. Educate yourself about eating disorders and be part of your loved one’s recovery. Validate their concerns and feelings and encourage them in whatever stage of their recovery they may be in. Ask how you can best support them, remind them you love and care about them, and offer hugs or kind words. Be gentle. Offer to be a support person. Also, don’t overly share details with people your loved one doesn’t want to know about their eating disorder or recovery.
Make sure you are supported as well. Just as your loved one needs support, so do you. Identify your own support people and coping mechanisms and give yourself grace that you won’t be perfect. Practice self-care — take a bath, read a book, go for a walk, do something that makes you feel good. Also, remind yourself that this is not forever. Recovery takes time, but you and your loved one will get through it.
You cannot change the behavior of your loved ones — you can only offer support for their recovery.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, help is available. The Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center for Eating Disorders provides inpatient treatment for adults, adolescents and children as young as 8 who suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.
In addition, Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers outpatient care through its Emotional Eating Track, geared toward individuals who are having difficulty managing the symptoms of a mood disorder and use food to regulate emotions.