11 December 2020

Helping a child with an eating disorder at Christmas

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When you hear the word ‘Christmas’, what pops into your head? It may be Santa, or presents, but for many the first words they connect with Christmas are about food. From the perfect roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts nobody touched, to mince pies and Christmas puddings, a big part of festive joy comes from the Christmas meal and exciting treats that only come around once a year.

When you are a parent of a child with an eating disorder, you may have concerns about how your child and family will cope with the festive period. For someone with an eating disorder, Christmas can trigger some anxiety. We have put together some ideas to help families handle the Christmas period and maintain a happy family atmosphere.

Types of eating disorder

An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food that impacts upon a person’s quality of life. It may involve obsessive thoughts about food, restrictive behaviour, feelings of guilt or unhappiness about eating. The main types include anorexia nervosa, which is a fear of eating characterised by desire to be thin, food restriction or excessive exercise. It involves obsessive thoughts about food and calorie restriction, as well as distressing thoughts about body-image. Bulimia involves bingeing and purging, which is a cycle of excessive eating, followed by trying to rid the body of food, either through vomiting, laxative misuse or excessive exercise. Some people who binge-eat do not purge. Binge-eaters may plan their binges and keep stashes of food in secret.

Signs of an eating disorder

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It can be very upsetting to see your child struggling with eating. It is important to know what kind of signs and symptoms to look out for so that you can get help as early as possible. NHS waiting-list times are unusually long at the moment due to pressure on services as a result of Covid-19, so it is now more important than ever to access support as soon as you can.

Important signs may include:

  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Talking about dieting or fad diets
  • Concerns about body image/appearance
  • Concerns about calories in food or carbohydrate or fat content
  • Secretive relationship with food, such as hiding uneaten food or keeping a food stash
  • Doing extra exercise after meals
  • An interest in cooking to control the food, or not eating what they cook
  • Going to the bathroom soon after meals
  • Smell of vomit in the bathroom or bedrooms
  • An interest in weighing themselves
  • Eating large quantities of food (food may go missing from cupboards)

Treatment availability on the NHS

Eating disorders are treatable. Early access to support can lead to a safe and healthy recovery, so it’s important that treatment is accessed urgently. The longer an eating disorder goes on for, the more complicated it can be to treat, and the physical effects of disordered eating can cause lasting damage.

The first step is to visit your GP to discuss treatment options. The GP may suggest outpatient psychotherapy or inpatient treatment, depending on the duration and severity of symptoms. Unfortunately, at this time, NHS waiting times are excessively long. A recent study has shown that in the last quarter, the waiting list for children (up to age 19) is triple what it was in the previous quarter. This amounts to hundreds of children currently in need of urgent support who are unable to access specialist services. In the first quarter of this year, there were 441 children still waiting to access support, with 56 cases market as urgent. Of those cases, 85 had been on a waiting list for more than 12 weeks, and a further 66 had been waiting between 4 and 12 weeks since first reaching out for help. 12 weeks is a long time when a child’s mental and physical health is at risk.

These statistics demonstrate that NHS services are not currently coping with the demand for support for children with eating disorder. However, there are measures you can take to tackle an eating disorder before it reaches this stage.

What to do if you notice an eating disorder in children

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If you suspect that your child is struggling with an eating disorder, be assured that there is plenty of support out there. There is also a lot you can do at home to make things easier for your child.

  • Have an open discussion – approach the topic gently, without blame or anger. You can have conversations about eating disorders and help them to talk about their feelings. Be curious about their opinions and try to avoid telling them what they should be thinking or feeling. There are negative attitudes towards eating disorders and a lot of social stigma, so your child may need a lot of encouragement to speak openly and honestly.
  • Consider social media influence – Social media has an enormous influence on our childrens’ lives, including their eating habits. Whilst we cannot avoid this, we can have frequent conversations about healthy attitudes towards social media. Children often do not understand that pictures on social media are fake and edited to present an unrealistic image. It can be helpful to discuss these topics as a family. Remind children that social media influencers are not medically qualified to give out advice, diet plans, etc. and encourage them to fact check what they read themselves by giving them examples of reliable, trustworthy websites.
  • Manage your own feelings – It can be very distressing to realise that your child is struggling. This is a delicate time and if your child senses that you are not coping well, it may push them further away. It might be helpful for you to arrange some counselling for yourself. It is important that you manage your feelings well so that you can be there for your child.

Making Christmas easier for someone with an eating disorder

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Christmas can be a challenge for someone with an eating disorder. It is important as a family to hold your child’s needs in mind and not put them under unnecessary pressure. Eating disorders do not take a break for Christmas, so make sure that your child feels included and welcomed even though they may be struggling. It can be frustrating to see a child picking at their food or avoiding eating, but try to remember that your child is not trying to annoy you, they are suffering with low self-esteem and disordered thinking.

The best way to look after your child is to keep the focus on family and togetherness. They can be encouraged and welcomed to join in and offered healthy, home-cooked food in a positive way. Resist the urge to comment on how much or little they are eating. You may like to encourage them to participate in the food preparation to help them feel involved. All family members should be kind and inclusive to them to ensure that Christmas celebrations are as happy and enjoyable as possible for the whole family.

How to seek urgent help

If you are worried about NHS waiting times then there are private alternatives available. Your child can access specialist counselling and psychotherapy privately. You may also wish to refer to a private treatment centre such as UKAT, who accept private health insurance in some cases. There, your child will have access to round-the-clock support and specialist treatment for their eating disorder.

There are also charities that you can contact for urgent support. BEAT offer a specialist hotline for people with eating disorders. Adults can call for free on 0808 801 0677 and young people can call on 0808 801 0711.

For families struggling with an eating disorder this Christmas, there is help and support out there. You are not alone and you can use the tips and advice provided here to make sure that your family can enjoy the festive period without putting your child under unnecessary pressure. You can care for your child’s needs and at the same time give them a happy Christmas that focuses on togetherness and family love and support.

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Our brand promise

If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment programme, we guarantee you'll stay clean and sober, or you can return for a complimentary 30 days of treatment.*

*Please contact your chosen centre for availability

Our paitents' health & safety remains top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. UKAT's strong safety measures have kept doors open throughout.
They will continue to do so despite a 2nd national lock-down (November). To learn more, click here!