The Mighty Logo

4 Tips for Parenting Teens With Eating Disorders During Thanksgiving

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Parenting is never an easy job, especially during the holiday season. Unfortunately, this job becomes even more complicated as our kids grow into teenagers.

As many parents know all too well, though, more teens than ever live with mental health conditions, and many teens struggle with some form of eating disorder such as anorexia, ARFID, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. These specific diagnoses are no walk in the park anytime, but they can be especially difficult to deal with during holidays that seem to focus on food, like Thanksgiving.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t always handle situations that occur at the dinner table perfectly. I will also say that every child and every situation is unique, so there’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. However, I do think that every parent can use these four tips to support and encourage teens who live with eating disorders during Thanksgiving.

1. Make time for conversation before Thanksgiving Day.

Regardless of which specific disordered behaviors your teen engages in, chances are they are scared of the upcoming holiday and the urges they will encounter. Teens often keep these thoughts and feelings to themselves, though, so it’s your job as a parent to start those difficult conversations.

If you can, carve out a bit of time with your teen before Thanksgiving Day so you can discuss what emotions and concerns the holiday is bringing up for them. Avoid accusations or implications and just ask open-ended questions that give your child the space to open up and share. Also, ask them how you can best support them through the holiday and actively listen to their response. You may be surprised by their response and gain valuable insight into your child’s needs through this special exchange. Furthermore, your teen may feel validated and loved just because you took the time to talk to them about these specific concerns and genuinely hear them out.

2. Think through the meal and any possible complications.

Holiday meals are challenging for people in any stage of eating disorder recovery for many reasons. While it’s impossible to predict every problem that could arise during your Thanksgiving dinner, it may help to map out possible issues and figure out ways to either avoid them or cope ahead with them before they turn into dangerous situations for your teen.

For some, fear foods can make plating and sitting through the meal complicated. In these cases, it may help to offer some preferred foods alongside more problematic ones. (Example: I’ll be serving a plate of chicken nuggets so my child with ARFID has at least one no-brainer item she can select.)

For others, the conversations that dominate both during the meal and after create uncomfortable situations that perpetuate negative thought patterns or urges to engage in specific disordered behavior. In these instances, it may help to have a signal or plan on how you can reroute problematic discussions so they land on a safer topic like the weather or the football game on TV — whatever works for you and your teen.

Whatever you decide, just make sure you check in with your child before you make any last-minute menu changes or shuffle the seating arrangements around at the table so they understand the thought process behind them.

3. Consult with your child’s treatment team and have a game plan ready.

Unfortunately, even the most seasoned parents don’t know everything there is to know about their teen’s eating disorder. However, your child probably has a team of providers in place who are willing and able to help you determine the best approach to this food-filled holiday so that your child can still enjoy the day with your family.

If you can, set up a time to discuss ways you can support your teen and aid their recovery efforts all weekend long. This may mean that you have to walk a fine line between tough love and encouragement, or you may have to set some firm ground rules that your child (and you) will stick to before, during, and after the meal. At my house, I will try my best to get my child to put at least one problematic food on her plate so she can perform the various exposures her occupational therapist has recommended. For other households, these game plans may look completely different depending on your teen’s specific diagnosis.

Regardless of the specifics, though, your teen’s providers can tell you what actions you can take to help your child and which ones you should avoid so that your child has the best possible experience this Thanksgiving.

4. Remember that your teen is still a child — no matter how grown up they seem.

As parents, we often forget that our teenage children are still just that — children. Underneath that hardened, adult-like exterior, there’s still a little kid inside who wants our love and approval more than anything else in the world.

Therefore, one of the best things you can do for them this Thanksgiving is to just show up for them in all the best possible ways. Remind them that you love them no matter what, and show them you’re proud of how far they’ve come in their recovery journey. By letting them know you’ll always be there to love them and support them, you’re making the day easier for them whether it feels like it or not.

Getty image by Ryan McVay.

Originally published: November 23, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home