For many people, the holiday season is their favorite time of year, as it’s a time that is meant to be bright with Christmas lights, happy times with family, and celebrations full of tasty treats and drinks. Yet, for many who suffer with an eating disorder or those that have a loved one suffering with an eating disorder, it can be a very challenging time of year.

The fear of holiday weight gain is exemplified to the highest degree in someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. The fear can be all-consuming, tainting what is supposed to be joyful times with negative, poisonous thoughts, self-doubt, and guilt. It’s very challenging for someone with an eating disorder to be around all the food and festivities that come with holiday celebrations. In such situations, individuals may feel vulnerable and unsafe, and then revert to their eating disorder behaviors to feel a sense of control and self-protection.

Holiday traditions epitomize what is good about family, friends, and relationships. But individuals suffering from an eating disorder can feel very conflicted during the holidays. Anticipating all the fun of seeing family, while at the same time fearing that their eating disorder will be discovered, discussed, obsessed about, or feeling out of control.

It can also be very challenging being the support for someone with an eating disorder, especially through the holidays. It can be challenging to see someone you love struggle so much and all you want to do is help. Being compassionate about the struggles of an eating disorder illness can help make the holidays less of a battle for those you love.

Here are some suggestions and thoughts of how family and friends can help support their loved ones suffering from an eating disorder during the holidays.

Don’t Place Blame

Especially as a parent, it’s hard not to analyze actions and how they affect children but it is important for family and friends not to feel responsible, guilty, or to blame themselves for the eating disorder. This emotion doesn’t help and the holidays are especially not the time to add additional negative emotions to conversations. Eating disorders are a very complex psychological disease and the behaviors and triggers are different for each person struggling. They aren’t caused by a single person or a relationship. It can be extremely helpful to learn about the illness to gain a better understanding of what can contribute to an eating disorder. It’s also important to accept that you may not know what caused your loved one’s eating disorder, and the holidays may not be the right time to explore this. You can learn about their struggles, triggers, and behaviors, and when you see those occurring, you can approach your loved one in private.

Be a Loved One First

As a loved one it can be very challenging not to offer advice or just to fix everything for them. But being a self-declared dietitian, therapist, or detective takes you away from your job as a loved one. It’s not your job to fix or solve the eating disorder. Working too hard to stop eating disorder behaviors can fuel dishonesty and defensiveness and additional eating disorder behaviors. It is your job to encourage nourishment for the body and to help provide support for the mind and soul. As much as it hurts you, nothing you do or not do will take away the eating disorder for your loved one. Your job is to care, empathize, encourage, and share the process of recovery with them. Be there with messages of love, respect, patience, and nurturing.

Emphasize the True Meaning of the Holidays

Create celebrations that focus less on food and meals and more on the true meaning and purpose of the celebrations. If the focus is on the holiday itself and its true meaning, rather than food or the eating disorder, it will be easier for your loved one to focus a little less on the eating disorder. Create times together that don’t involve meals, treats, or drinks. Invite family and friends to participate in smaller, quieter, and less chaotic social events. Talking and sharing as a small circle can be more meaningful and less stressful for your loved one with an eating disorder.

Avoid Praise for Eating or Weight Gain

It seems natural to give compliments to someone when they achieve something that you think deserves praise, like eating at a party or gaining healthy weight. But the eating disorder brain can take that (well-meaning) praise and twist it into negative thoughts and behaviors. Someone struggling with an eating disorder does not want to receive public praise for eating or also does not want to receive public encouragement to eat more. The more effective way to is to offer encouragement before an event or to offer support in private by asking open ended questions, instead of making statements or compliments.

Plan Together

If your loved one has a specific recovery plan that they are following, learn what that plan is and find offer support to help them adhere to their plan. One of the biggest triggers for many individuals with an eating disorder is feeling out of control. Going to a party or to a friend’s house and not knowing what is being served is the very definition of not feeling in control for someone with an eating disorder. This lack of control can trigger eating disorder behaviors before, during, and after an event. An individual who is working to recovery will be working with their psychologist on how to navigate these situations without relying on eating disorder behaviors so your job as a loved one is to help make the transition easier, especially during the holidays. You can offer to bring something that you know fits into your loved one’s eating plan. Another way to offer support is to plan to be your loved one’s interceptor by intercepting comments that may trigger your loved one. Talk to your loved one before the event and if it’s helpful, be the voice for them. When someone asks your loved one about their weight or what they’re eating, intercept, change the conversation.

This is not a complete list ways to provide support but I wanted to emphasize some positive approaches to help and support someone with an eating disorder. Your loved one struggling with the eating disorder will also have positive ways and suggestions that you can do to help during the holidays. We know it’s not easy being the support system for someone struggling with an eating disorder. But you should know you play a major role in the road to recovery.