Although holiday food would seem to be the biggest issue for those with an eating disorder, being around family at the holidays is perhaps even more challenging. The holiday season is a busy, often stressful time where preexisting family dynamics are highlighted. Being around family can make an adult feel like they are seven years old again. However, returning to one’s family for the holidays does not have to interfere with recovery from an eating disorder. 

Managing expectations and setting personal boundaries are key. If Cousin Amanda is known to go on and on about her latest diet plan, and Uncle Henry starts arguments over politics, then it will be no surprise when they do exactly that. The holiday season does not need to be perfect to be worthwhile. With some planning, returning home for the holidays need not derail the healing process. 

Changing our behavior can invite new interactions with others. However, we cannot control other people’s actions. These six tips help keep recovery on track, even when the environment may be emotionally charged.  

Keep a regular schedule.

As much as possible, keep to a regular schedule for sleeping and meals. For example, don’t skip a meal to “save up” for a bigger one. Skipping meals increases chances for feeling out of control around food, or bingeing – and then a spiral of shame. If there is a plan or recommendations from a treatment team, follow it.  

Communicate in advance.

Before returning home for holidays, take time to set expectations with others. Speak directly with family members and let them know if any conversation topics are off-limits. Many people are receptive to this if informed in advance in a non-confrontational manner. If there are family members who are unlikely to listen or who may be belittling, seek out allies who can help defuse tensions in the moment. 

Predict likely scenarios. 

Within families, it is typical for each person to take on a specific role and for communication patterns to become entrenched. Therefore, it is relatively easy to predict how each person will respond when the family gathers together. Will some comments be mean-spirited? Undoubtedly, yes. However, some hurtful comments may be due to obliviousness rather than malice.

A comeback can be direct, letting the other person know it was hurtful. It can also be a bit lighter, such as, “My weight and your weight are the least interesting things about us.” If addressing the issue that directly does not feel feasible, redirect the conversation to a neutral topic.

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Have back-up allies.

If too much togetherness is taking a toll, lean on others. Before returning home for holidays, organize a support network. When needed, step outside and text a friend or process your feelings with an allied family member.

Practice distress tolerance.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that acknowledges and integrates the opposite extremes of acceptance and change. In instances where things feel unbearable, DBT teaches distress tolerance to get through the short term.

Paced breathing is a distress tolerance skill, and a simple one to understand. Begin breathing deeply, making sure the exhalation lasts longer than the inhalation (e.g. count of four for inhalation; count of eight for exhalation). This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms down emotional reactivity. 

Have an exit plan.

If it all still feels like too much, leaving the premises is an option. There is no shame in this. Sometimes family members are not receptive to us, and we have the right to set our own boundaries. While in recovery, it also takes time to build our own skills, so exiting the situation may be what we can do to care for ourselves this year. Next year, it may be different.

Interested in more articles like this one? Check out some other Center for Discovery blog posts:

Three Ways to Overcome Negative Food Talk During Holiday Gatherings

How to Enjoy Family Gatherings and Potlucks without a Binge Eating Relapse

About the Author
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more

Linehan, M.M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual (2nd Ed.). The Guilford Press: New York.