Whether she is early in her recovery, or she is farther along, Thanksgiving is a day that can be loaded with even more stress and intensity than usual for your anorexic teen. 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?

1. Start planning for the holiday ahead of time. 
Thanksgiving usually means planning ahead, but your planning will be need to be different this time. It might seem easier to try to keep things the way they have always been, but it is worth the time it takes to carefully consider how your teen’s anorexia has changed things. Use your best judgment on where she is in her recovery and where you are in her recovery to decide how to plan the day. Trust your instincts about what is right for you and your family right now. Consciously decide what your Thanksgiving will be like this year by asking yourself some good questions:
  • 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?
Answering questions like these can be a really good way to get started with a structured Thanksgiving plan.
2. Be prepared for anorexia to show up at the table regardless of the amount of planning and preparation you’ve done.

Decide ahead of time what you can focus on if she is struggling during dinner. Just because she doesn’t smile and eat everything on her plate doesn’t mean the meal is a failure. It just means you are where you are, and that’s okay.

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.

Don’t require her to eat more than she normally does or to eat foods that she hasn’t been eating. For example, Thanksgiving dinner is not the time to push one of the foods that used to be her favorite. Saying, “but you used to love sweet potato casserole. I put extra marshmallows on it for you,” isn’t a good idea. Trust me.

Let her in on the food plan enough to keep her anxiety as low as possible. Tell her you don’t expect her to eat more than you normally require just because it is Thanksgiving dinner. As always, don’t allow her to negotiate about what or how much she will be required to eat. If she asks to skip breakfast or if she can eat a small lunch, your answer is “no.”

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. 

If you can play a family game, tell a funny story, look forward to an upcoming event, say a grateful prayer, or find a reason to smile, you can emphasize something other than the Thanksgiving meal and how much she does or doesn’t eat. Distractions are helpful tools at every meal, but Thanksgiving is a good time to come up with new ideas to try.

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. 

If you need to coach family members or friends who will be there, do it in advance. Talk to them when your daughter is not around, and remind them again immediately before they join you. Firmly and kindly let them know that comments about food, calories, ingredients, weight, overeating, dieting, feeling stuffed, exercise plans, and healthy or unhealthy eating are off limits.

6. Prepare responses to uncomfortable moments in advance. 

Plan for a way to handle the situation if anyone has a slip up. Have a question or two ready to interject if conversation turns to inappropriate topics. Quickly asking about summer plans or how Cousin Fred is doing will help keep your teen’s anxiety at a minimum. Knowing that you have prepared for this possibility ahead of time will also give you great peace of mind.

7. Come up with a communication strategy to use if she becomes overwhelmed and needs a break. 

She can have a way to signal you, and you can have a way of excusing yourselves before anything escalates. For example, “Sweetie, will you help me with something in the other room for a minute?” You can both leave the table and casually tell everyone that you’ll be right back. You may need to take a few minutes to check in with her, try to help her calm down, and then you can decide if she is able to return to the table or not. If she needs to finish her meal separately, you can go get her plate, and sit with her while she finishes her meal in another room.
8. Acknowledge yourself. 

Give yourself some credit for all of the love you put into the holiday, and all of the care you put into each and every meal and snack you prepare for your teen today and every day. She may not be able to tell you how much she appreciates your help and support at this point in her recovery, but she does.

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. 

The possibilities are only limited by our thoughts.

Imagine this: you can have a happy Thanksgiving despite anorexia.

You can find meaning in Thanksgiving that you haven’t experienced until now. You can create new traditions at any time.

Here are some traditional ways to celebrate Thanksgiving along with some ideas to make this Thanksgiving unconventional:

Dress up/Wear pajamas
Extended family/Just us this year
Turkey and all of the trimmings/Each person picks one thing
Baking pies together/Creating a craft together
An elaborate table set with good china/Eat on paper plates on couch
Eating one big meal in the middle of day/Having all meals as usual
Day is structured around cooking and eating/Day is structured around family
A lot of work cooking and cleaning/Keeping it simple
High expectations/No expectations

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 jenni@peacemealcoach.com.