5 Survival Tips for When Your Child Is in Residential Treatment During Christmastime


I cannot believe we are back here, but we are. My 16-year-old son has once again relapsed with his eating disorder. Like Groundhog Day, he was anxious about his upcoming anniversary of last year’s relapse. This time of year is a huge trigger. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he spiraled out of control in just 13 days.

In that short time, he had completely slipped back into the abyss of his evil best friend “ED.” We took him to the hospital for a six-day stay to rehydrate and be re-fed. Our intent this time was to be able treat his illness at home, using our family-based skills and a local intensive outpatient program (IOP)

To our disappointment, we were ill-equipped to give him what he needed to once again reach recovery. From his hospital bed to the airport, we traveled thousands of miles across the country to Denver to place him back into residential treatment. This will be the third year out of four that he will not be with us at Christmastime. It is heartbreaking and so sad to see this sweet boy struggle with such a horrific disease.

In order to have self-preservation and peace in our family, this year we are taking a different approach. Our goal is to avoid putting our life on perpetual hold, existing in a world of sadness and grief as we so desperately try and fill the void of time in his absence. I never planned on learning the art of survival, but with our history and experience that is what happens. So I wanted to share some tips on how to cope when a loved one is away in a residential treatment during the holiday season.

1. Remember to take care of yourself.

When you have a loved one who is sick, it’s easy to let yourself go. As a parent, you tend to put everyone’s needs first, ensuring they are coping and surviving in the household. In order to be strong for others, you have to first be strong for yourself.

Try and take advantage of having time away from your child’s eating disorder. Embrace this time. Sleep is the absolute best weapon that is critical in times of stress. I recommend seven to eight hours at a minimum. A well-rested night can make the days seem more manageable. It is also important to exercise and nourish your soul. Even a brisk walk around the block can clear your head. The endorphins released provide the free medicine you need to regenerate your spirit and energize you, especially on days when you feel the worst.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

While a cocktail is fine now and then, it is important to ensure it’s not used as a replacement to fill the loss felt. Finally, eating healthy meals and nourishing your body is essential to ensure you maintain your strength and avoid losing your resistance to fight those holiday germs lurking in the stores.

2. Continue living your life.

When you are sad, lonely and missing a child, it is easy to put your own life on hold marking time until their return. This not only makes time go slower, it is simply not healthy to isolate and disengage. If you work, then that can be a great diversion. Take on an extra project if you have the passion to do so. If you don’t work full time, then volunteering is a wonderful way to interact with others who sometimes make you see your own situation in a different light. When you are hurting, it can be therapeutic to give to others. It a great deflection, and it is so important to be present in your life.

3. Don’t forget about the siblings of the patient.

It is so important to continue traditions and rituals established by your family during this time. These should not stop because a family member is gone this season. Celebrate your traditions and remember that one person is ill, not the whole household. Making sure that the other children continue to have their holiday is critical. It is not fair for the other family members to have their holiday robbed because their sibling is ill. Make a point to remind them how special they are to you. Value your time together, and continue to make memories in spite of your sadness.

4. Lean on friends and family.

It is easy to disconnect and feel like no one understands the stress and angst you are feeling. While loved ones may not have walked in your shoes, they are there for you and are genuine when they say they want to help. If you are married, then have a date with your spouse. Even going out with another couple is great therapy. The interaction and stimulation is healthy and gets you to stop focusing on your situation.

If you are not married, then join a book club or get together with a friend for coffee, dinner or a movie. Staying busy with others for connectivity is vital. On the actual holiday you are observing, if family or friends invite you to join them, then say yes. Being with others is important and reminds us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. It also takes your mind off of missing your family member and can help you get through the day. Don’t worry if you are not feeling like yourself. People will understand and be supportive.

5. Talk to a professional.  

We spend so much time ensuring our child gets to the right professional to address their eating disorder, and then, we are left to our own devices trying to make sense of it all. It can be overwhelming trying to cope and understand the illness. It is a great relief to talk to a therapist or clergy. They can be objective and provide perspective that we don’t always have.

Sometimes as a parent, you may be feeling scared or even angry that this person is still fighting their eating disorder. Working through this is really important so you have greater clarity to be of value to your child when they return. It is helpful to consider having a session with your child’s therapist. They have perspective that you might not and can provide insight and advice like no other. They tend to understand the situation well.

After spending three out of four years without our son at Christmas, I can tell you I have done the opposite of all these things at different times and in various years. The end result was a difficult holiday season. You are not alone. While these things won’t make the hurt and sadness disappear, they do help to get through a difficult time of year.

My prayer is that next year we will break our cycle, and he will be home to complete our family. Next year, I plan to write a new story of hope. Happy Holidays.

  If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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