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How to Make Thanksgiving Easier for Your Teen with an Eating Disorder

If you have an eating disorder and are wondering how to cope with Thanksgiving, click here.

Even more so than many other holidays, Thanksgiving is all about the food: eating food, making food, talking about food, what to do with the leftover food, “making up for” overeating food. This can be incredibly stressful to young people with eating disorders, who often feel like their behavior is being watched and analyzed.

If a young family member (or anyone else) with an eating disorder will be at your Thanksgiving, here’s how you can help them feel comfortable and enjoy the holiday.

1. Ask what you can do to be supportive

Everyone is different. While this post has general advice, it’s important to listen to what your young person tells you. If your teen has an eating disorder, ask them what you can do to be supportive. If a family member you’re not as close to has an eating disorder, consider asking their parents, if you feel comfortable and think it would be appropriate.

2. Don’t call attention to the eating disorder

Don’t comment on what or how much they’re eating or not eating. For example: “Are you sure you want that much turkey?”, “Take some more stuffing.”  Avoid mentioning their weight or body, even if you think you’re giving a compliment. For example, saying, “You look so healthy!” may sound positive to you, but translate as, “You look fat” to your teen.

3. Discourage other family members from talking about weight or dieting

Phrases like, “I have to go on a diet after this!” or “I’m so bad—I really shouldn’t be eating pie” can seem normal and innocuous. But for someone with an eating disorder, talking about dieting, weight and guilty feelings around food can be triggering and bring up feelings of shame.

Of course, it’s easier to control your own behavior than your whole family’s. This does not mean that you should talk to those attending about your teen’s eating disorder. Instead, frame the suggestion as general advice: “Please try to avoid talking about diets and weight this year—we’re trying to have a guilt-free Thanksgiving.” Or, “We don’t want to encourage the younger family members to feel self-conscious about their weight or what they eat, so please don’t bring up these topics.”

4. Have the big meal earlier in the day

Eating the big Thanksgiving meal earlier in the day means that there’s time to eat a second, smaller meal later in the day.  This may make it less likely that your teen will feel guilty for eating too much. Eating two normal-sized meals instead of one huge one can also help ease feelings of guilt about overeating. If your teen has a binge eating disorder, eating two meals can also make it easier for them to avoid bingeing.

5. Make new family traditions

Do what you can to shift the emphasis of the holiday away from mealtime. Create a new family tradition—no food involved. This could be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, National Dog Show or football; going to the park; playing a board game; or doing anything else fun that doesn’t involve eating. This gives your teen a (hopefully) less stressful activity to look forward to.

If they haven’t already, your teen may want to talk to their therapist or doctor about Thanksgiving, so they can come up with a plan that works for them.

If your teen is 10-22 years old in NYC, they can get free, compassionate health care, including comprehensive treatment for eating disorders, at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. No immigration restrictions, no insurance needed.

This article is adapted from this blog post by Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD published November, 2016.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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