The holiday season is often a joyful time when friends and family hit pause on their busy schedules to enjoy each other’s company. There's also lots and lots of food involved, which can be challenging for parents with a history of eating disorders.
Recent research has found that parental eating disorders (either a past or current condition) are associated with numerous problems in child feeding, including difficulties in transitioning to solid foods and deciding which types of foods to offer and in what quantities. Studies observing the interactions of mothers with eating disorders and their young children noted greater conflict and more controlling behavior over eating, appetite, and food choices. Mothers with eating disorders often tell researchers and clinicians that their children’s troubling eating patterns are associated with their own eating habits, and shape and weight concerns too often intervene in the decisions parents make in feeding their children.
Holiday celebrations can make these feeding relationships even more complex. Traditions of eating together with family or friends may create additional stress for parents. Additionally, family gatherings can reawaken memories of negative experiences parents may have had as children at the dinner table, adding another layer of worry and hyper-vigilance.
So what should parents with a history of eating disorders, or those concerned about their children overeating, do during the holidays? Here are some tips for having a more pleasurable and relaxing time:
- Plan ahead: Talk to your partner about your concerns and come up with a strategy for how to cope with stressful situations around eating. Talk about what you'll do if there is food on the table that you typically don't eat, or if your child asks for second and third servings of foods. A rule of thumb should be to allow the child to experience a variety of food to a certain extent, as long as it doesn't contradict any significant beliefs or preferences (such as non-kosher food).
- Talk with your child before things get out of hand: Walk your child through the social gathering beforehand and discuss potential conflicts that may arise. The discussion should be appropriate to the child’s age. With children ages 2-3, parents could talk about the meal, mention that it will be probably very tasty, and set some limits. For instance, one could say that after dinner the child can have one or two desserts, but not more. With older children, parents should encourage autonomous eating based on the child’s regulation of hunger and satiety. This is an opportunity to discuss with children the differences between families, as well as your normal routine and special events. You should also discuss general boundaries and choices of your household.
- Add fun activities that don't involve food: Many celebrations and traditions revolve around food. To participate with your family in more neutral activities that are less nerve-wracking, parents should think of supplementary pastimes that all family members will enjoy. Shifting the focus away from the meal for part of the time can help parents “lower the volume” of their eating disorder when they spend time with their children.
- Unwind: Despite being worried that loved ones will gain excessive weight during the holidays, parents should remind themselves that in a healthy-eating style, people don't become overweight following a few specific meals. In addition, you should focus on the positive aspects of the social gathering for them and for their children – meeting family members or friends you may have not seen in a while, catching up with things you do not have time for during the year, and strengthening your relationships with your children. Before anxiety-provoking situations, parents should use any method of relaxation and stress-reduction that works for them and fits the context – have a long relaxing shower, drink a hot tea, listen to music, or stay away from the dinner table until the meal begins.
The holiday season can be a better experience for you and your family once you work through and resolve any concerns involving children’s eating.
Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, is a psychologist and a visiting instructor at Stanford. She's now recruiting mothers with a history of eating disorders to a parenting program study at Stanford. For more information contact email@example.com.
Photo by Micah Elizabeth Scott