Coping through Christmas with an eating disorder

Christmas can be a very difficult and challenging time for people with eating disorders or difficult relationships with food.  Whilst for some, the relaxing time that the festive break can bring may offer some reprieve, for others, the stress and distress only increases with the loss of structure, attendance at family events, and focus on food.

 Here are some tips to help see you through:

Here are some tips to help you through

Plan ahead so you can keep your routine

If you need to, take snacks with you, especially if you’ll be in the car for long periods or outdoors and away from your usual resources. It is absolutely OK to pull out a muesli bar when you are at the beach with your friends or stop on the side of the road for lunch.

Parents! Do not spring meals on your young people

Now more than ever they need the predictable routine of 3 meals and 3 snacks. They are battling an illness that tells them that all food is dangerous.  They are doing all that they can to eat the meal plan and may struggle to do anything outside of this.

Distraction is okay wherever you are

Yes, you can UNO in a restaurant, you can listen to your music, you can read a book.  It is ok.  Parents – if others have something to say about this, please excuse your young person without drawing attention to them.  They will need you to do this for them.

People ask questions

If you’re struggling with eating or other changes, then others might inquire about that.  Practice what you might say before you get there.  Other people don’t need to know everything that is going on.  Remember, your story is your story.  Make is meaningful and only share what you are comfortable sharing.  Parents – discuss with your young person what they are ok with others knowing.

Move on notice

Parents, loved ones of people with eating disorders, please learn to move conversations on if there are too many intrusive inquiries.  Have a few topics that can redirect the conversation.  “How about that weather” is unlikely to be sufficient, but a comment on the great things your person has achieved this year could be a good start. For example: “oh, did we tell you that we travelled to Bali this year”, “oh, did we tell you that we were looking at new apartments”, “oh, did we tell you that they finished year 12 this year”.

Code words

This is the get out of jail free card.  Let’s respect that overwhelm is common, expected, and OK.  There’s a lot happening around Christmas and even the best of us can be taken under by the tide of busy-ness and noise.  Young people! Respect yourself – take a time out.  If that can be hard to orchestrate, use a codeword to let your person know you need a break and they can take over.  Remember, when in distress, you have less cognitive ability and therefore might need to lean on someone else who is less distressed to help you.

Eating alone

Sometimes better, but also sometimes riskier.  If you or your young person are struggling to manage with all the people around, perhaps sit somewhere quiet so you can complete the meal.  That meal counts in your recovery, other people can just get over it if you need to excuse yourself for 30 minutes.  However, be mindful that it can be hard to keep going if you’re on your own.  It’s OK to take someone with you.

Reduce the threat

Where is the less threatening place to eat?  Is it with the family, perhaps it is at the ‘kids’ table, is it just with your person?  Think about it before you get there, particularly if you know there is likely to be a triggering person there that you are trying to avoid.  If you have to make it up on the day – let someone know who can help you.

No body or food talk

No exceptions.  Absolutely no comments on appearance, weight, shape, or eating.  Nothing.  There are millions of other topics you can talk about.  It’s hard to control others though.  Parents! If you can (and are permitted by your young person), please recruit trusted family members to be mindful of the language and conversation.  And young people! As much as we would like to change everyone’s language and quite frankly as a society we need to talk less about others’ appearance, people are slow on the uptake about this.  YOU will need to take some ownership here too; You can change the subject, walk away, and it is perfectly OK to say “I would prefer if we don’t talk about weight today”.

The interested observer

On that note, if you can’t get away or have a family or friends that are particularly prone to this kind of conversation, you can use a skill called the interested observer.  It’s a cool one to master, actually. Your task is to watch, as if you are watching the actors on a stage, just notice.  But you watch and notice with some detachment.  The words can’t touch you.  It is all just a play for you to watch.  There is no judgement, and the words don’t really mean anything, they are just words. It as if you are sitting above the forest looking at the forest itself as a whole, rather than being down there in the forest with all the things in the forest.  Be interested, be curious; just watch.

Treats are tricky but they are absolutely OK to have

If you’re finding that guilt is overwhelming you and you can’t partake at that moment in time, but would like to later, take something home in a snack bag.  You can have it later.

Does it all need to be about food?

The family gathers, we eat because that’s what we do… but why don’t we also play a game of backyard cricket, frisbee, or play a family game.  Games like Taboo, Pictionary, Cards Against Humanity, Kids Against Maturity can often result in hilarity and is a great way to do something else at the family gathering. You never know, it could be the battle royale that the family then adopt as a new tradition and they’ll be thankful you started it!

Guilt and other forms of distress

Loved ones, please keep in mind that distress rises prior to the meal, during, and after the meal as well.  You are only in the clear when your young person lets you know they are.  Young people! You have a role here too.  The guilt is just the eating disorder having a tantrum.  It will tell you all sorts of critical and judgemental things about food and you.  It is OK to ask it to dial down a bit.  Sure, it’s just trying to keep you safe, but it’s working too hard.  You are absolutely OK to have some peace from that guilt.  Distract, distract, distract.


Watch out for strong waves of distress.  Respond to them as early as you can.  If you are in the ‘green’ zone then you’re good to go.  If you are in the ‘amber’ zone, things are heating up and you could use some scaffolded support – do an activity, write in your journal, talk it out, cry it out.  If you are in the ‘red’ zone, then it is time to alert your support people.  If it is spicy red, then it is time to activate the highest level of support in your plan, which could mean hospital support.  You do not need to suffer, and you are fine to call on your supports.  You will not ruin their day.  Each time you cope through, it benefits your overall journey as well as that moment in time.

Praise you!

YES! This is the time of year to take stock.  It might have been a very tricky year and there might have been some huge hurdles.  You might be in the middle of the greatest fight of your life here with this eating disorder AND you are also a wonderful human who has done some lovely things this year.  Celebrate you and we don’t care what your eating disorder has to say about that! Permission to celebrate!

Written by Dr Kim Eaton, Clinical Psychologist

More information

If you’re concerned about your eating or to book an appointment with Dr Kim Eaton or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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