She is surrounded by food. Trigger. She is surrounded by people watching her every move. Trigger. She is remembering past holidays when she worried about eating. Trigger. She is anxious that she’ll have to eat food she doesn’t want to eat. Trigger. She is scared that she will have to eat more than she wants to eat. Trigger. She remembers the last time she baked a dessert, and how she obsessed about every detail to make it perfect, but she still wasn’t happy with how it turned out. Trigger. She is thinking about how much she wants to eat, but her anorexia won’t let her. Trigger.
Thanksgiving from your perspective, as the mom of an anorexic teen, can also be loaded. The normal stress, anxiety, and fear that you and your daughter already experience in food-related situations will most likely be heightened on Thanksgiving Day. You want to be calm and loving, but you are already feeling anxious. What can you do?
How can I support my daughter while taking care of myself and my other family members during Thanksgiving?
- Is this a good time to have Thanksgiving with just our immediate family instead of including extended family?
- Are we ready to travel out of town, or is staying home a better choice for us?
- What changes can I make to the Thanksgiving menu that will help support my teen’s recovery?
- How can I make the traditional dishes that my family enjoys, and not create too much anxiety for my anorexic teen?
- How do I want to feel as I prepare the meal? As I serve the meal?
- Is there a new tradition we can start this year that has nothing to do with food? How can we involve our anorexic teen in this tradition?
- How can all of us keep our comments about food, calories, overeating, feeling stuffed, etc. to ourselves?
- What distractions can we use during the meal?
- What can we plan to do immediately following the meal to keep her mind off of what she has eaten?
- What can we focus on that we are thankful for this Thanksgiving?
- No matter how hard each and every meal has been up to this point, can I find some progress to feel thankful about?
Recognize that she is doing the best she can, and so are you.
If the Thanksgiving meal doesn’t go the way you hoped it would, remember that the meal is only one part of the day. Nothing has gone wrong. Plenty has gone right and will continue to go right.
Don’t beat yourself up if you are feeling really anxious or if something doesn’t happen as planned.
3. Keep her Thanksgiving meals and times as similar as possible to the normal routine.
Keep a dessert that she eats on a regular basis on the menu. Because my daughter eats ice cream every night, she can eat that on Thanksgiving while the rest of us eat our pumpkin pie. She doesn’t have to have a traditional dessert to make Thanksgiving dinner a success.
In other words, don’t abandon your meal plan. Keep the general structure of meals the same as any other day. If she normally eats 3 meals and 3 snacks a day, she will eat 3 meals and 3 snacks on Thanksgiving too.
4. Be prepared with ways to distract.
Is there a funny holiday video that her brother or sister could have ready to share? Does she have favorite music to listen to while you eat? While it is probably something your family doesn’t normally do during Thanksgiving dinner, watching a movie or solving a crossword puzzle together could make the meal much less stressful for everyone.
5. Remind everyone not to comment on food or appearance.
6. Prepare responses to uncomfortable moments in advance.
7. Come up with a communication strategy to use if she becomes overwhelmed and needs a break.
9. Create a new Thanksgiving tradition.
Get your family involved in coming up with a new tradition that doesn’t involve food. If your traditional Thanksgiving involves eating and watching football and eating some more, brainstorm about something new to add. Does your family love monopoly? Could you have a poker tournament? Go on a scenic drive? Take turns reading from a favorite book?
Try to involve your anorexic teen, but understand if she isn’t actively participating. You can even decide ahead of time how you want to respond if she refuses to be involved. I usually say something like, “we understand that you don’t feel like it right now, but let us know if you change your mind.” Sometimes after a little bit of time has passed, you or another family member can try again to see if she is ready to join the activity.
10. Be creative.
Here are some traditional ways to celebrate Thanksgiving along with some ideas to make this Thanksgiving unconventional:
What ways can you intentionally plan to have an unconventional Thanksgiving that will support you, your anorexic teen, and your other family members?
With anorexia in the house, we will undoubtedly experience a Thanksgiving that is different than it used to be. Luckily, the way we experience it is up to us.
We can decide that the interruption of family tradition because of our teen’s anorexia is a loss. We can decide that Thanksgiving will be horrible because anorexia has taken over our lives.
Or, we can decide that we are going to have an unconventional Thanksgiving that is just right for us right now. We can decide to focus on the blessings we have without changing our circumstances at all. We can decide to celebrate Thanksgiving in a new and different way, and to find meaning in every part of it.
It would be easy to succumb to stress, worry, and emotional exhaustion this Thanksgiving. But, how awesome would it be to decide to show up as your very best mom-self instead? Let everyone else be however they are going to be. You can decide to nurture, support, and love at your highest level no matter what. It is possible to do this, even when anorexia has invited herself to Thanksgiving dinner.
I would love to hear how you plan to celebrate an unconventional Thanksgiving this year. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.