Holidays can be hard for parents and children, especially when children are not “typical” eaters.
Helping parents anticipate challenges around holiday meals, and brainstorming ways to make things easier can make a big difference in overall stress and even eating. Although comments, teasing, pressure, or praise at holiday meals may come from a good place, they’re just not helpful.
If parents have an anxious or avoidant eater, or growth and weight have been a concern, or a child is smaller or larger than average, the child and parents can feel especially scrutinized.
Changes in routine, travel, and socializing adds significant stress and sensory overwhelm. And parents, in addition to the traditional challenges and drama of family get-togethers (holiday or not), likely dread the anticipated comments from friends and family.
- “Is this all you’re going to eat!?”
- “Is she STILL not eating properly?”
- “No wonder he’s so skinny/chubby.”
- “That’s enough bread. Take something green.”
- “No one can have dessert before they finish dinner!”
Research has shown that* parental stress was associated with more use of mealtime pressure as well as higher levels of avoidant eating (Berge et al., 2020). If you can help parents feel less stressed, this may in turn have a positive knock-on effect on their feeding practices.
Adding insult to injury, the parents you work with may notice other parents using non-responsive strategies (like pressure and restriction). It can be especially demoralizing when these children eat their veggies to earn dessert, seeming to prove that pressure and bribes are the way to go.
How can we support parents through the challenges of the holiday season? Here are a few ideas.
Validate that holidays are hard
“Lots of my families really struggle with the holidays. How are things for you heading into the holiday season?” Set time aside in the before and after holiday sessions for parents to be heard. When parents feel understood and validated, we notice it decreases their anxiety. Don’t underestimate the power of this healing connection; they need to know that they’re not alone. If you can provide a safe space where parents can voice their concerns and brainstorm strategies with you, this will make all the difference.
Reinforce the value of a responsive approach
It may be tempting for parents to fit in and pressure at the family table, or not step in when grandparents tease or bribe. But this can cause significant stress and even setbacks for children. To help parents avoid falling back into old patterns:
- Revisit the long-term vs short-term benefits of sticking to a responsive strategy
- Review how things were when the child first came to see you
- Ask parents to consider what the months or years of pressure or bribes resulted in before
- Point out and celebrate any progress you’ve noticed (more comfort at mealtimes, curiosity about new foods, reduced anxiety…)
When parents feel that the long game is worth it, it’s easier to handle temporary setbacks or watch other kids “eat everything,” without spiraling into negativity.
This is not just our opinion: the negative impact of mealtime pressure is well-documented: We know that children who are pressured to eat have lower levels of eating enjoyment (Van der Horst, 2012) as well as demonstrate increased avoidant eating (Ek et al., 2016). Pressure to eat has been associated with more emotional under-eating too (Farrow et al., 2009).
If parents have a few days before the holidays
If parents have time, maybe they could send an email to friends and family or chat with them over the phone:
Here is a sample:
Hi everyone, so excited to see you all next weekend!
Just wanted to let you know that we have been learning about the best way to support Jimmy with his eating (or that you’re working with a professional if you want to share and call in some reinforcements). It’s not always easy but we are giving it a try. We are not commenting on what or how much he is eating, don’t ask him to eat more or less, and don’t make a big deal if he tries something new. We’ve noticed it’s really helped his anxiety and comfort around food, which is a big step! Mostly we are excited to see all of you and have a great visit!
The best ways to help us are:
- Please don’t discuss, tease, or label his eating
- Please don’t talk to Jimmy about what and how much he is or isn’t eating
- Please don’t encourage Jimmy to eat or try foods – it’s ok if he eats very little
- Please don’t tell Jimmy to stop eating any of the foods – let him decide
- Please don’t be offended if I bring some food that he finds easier, to share with everyone. It helps us all relax and enjoy the meal – and each other – more.
- Please follow my lead when we are eating together. (During the meal, if others slip and start to pressure, a matter-of-fact, “Mom, please follow my lead” should do the trick.)
Sincerely, Mama Bear
You can also encourage parents to emphasize the fact that the core goal of a holiday meal is to enjoy one another’s company NOT to see it as an opportunity to work on their child’s eating.
If parents are in a situation where they know there will be opposition to their approach, they can also try to pre-empt a difficult interaction across the dinner table (and possibly in their child’s hearing) with an invitation to talk through anything that doesn’t make sense in advance:
“If you can’t get on board with any of this, or just don’t understand it and have questions, let’s jump on the phone so we can talk this through before we get together.”
Of course, as we mention below, parents are under no obligation to share details about their child’s treatment or challenges, unless they feel comfortable doing so.
Help parents with anticipated in-the-moment interference
When attempts to control the child’s eating happen during a meal, there may not be time to explain the philosophy and research behind a responsive approach. It may help to take some time with parents to help them prepare, offer some “script” ideas, or even role-play.
- Encourage them to avoid scenes or confrontations during mealtimes, if possible.
- Remind them that they don’t have to share details about a child’s challenges or therapy if they don’t want to. Older children may appreciate some privacy.
- If things are particularly challenging right now, parents may need to hear that it’s okay to skip the big family dinner until things are more stable.
- Parents may be looking for “permission” for children to skip traditional mealtimes and be allowed to eat preferred foods beforehand or at a separate table.
- Encourage parents to practice refocusing conversations on connection. Maybe, “How is that tree-house you guys built?” or, “Margot’s Zoom wedding was cool with those video clips, wasn’t it?”
With a neurodiversity-affirming practice, children’s felt safety should be prioritized over extended family’s wishes and preferences.
Here are some more phrases to try:
- “He doesn’t have to eat it. In our family, no one has to try anything they don’t want to.”
- “I appreciate that you care, but we have different opinions about this. I know it’s best for our family.”
- Address the child directly: “You don’t have to finish the potatoes. In our family, everyone gets dessert regardless of how much of dinner they eat.” Or, “Have you had enough?” When the child says yes, this is often enough to stop the pressure and comments.
Dealing with diet and weight-focused talk
- Use weight-neutral language (link to IG live with Virginia Sole-Smith) in your work
- As before, defer to topics around connection, change the topic
- Try, “We think all bodies are good bodies,” or “Tanya is exactly the way she is supposed to be,” and, “We don’t diet in our family.”
*Note, all of this will be harder for parents in bigger bodies. Regan Chastain, of the Dances With Fat blog wrote about diet talk here, and leads a workshop on food policing at the holidays. There are other resources parents can explore.
Helping children advocate for themselves
When children are old enough, they can be taught to say things like, “My Nana says I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to,” or “Don’t yuck my yum,” or, “No thank you.”
Letting children say “no” in therapy is so important: it’s practice for the wider world.
Help parents advocate for their child
Having boundaries and advocating for their children can be a very challenging, but empowering experience for parents. Some parents who struggled with boundaries for themselves, rise to the challenge when it comes to protecting their children. (Also recognize that it may not be safe or culturally appropriate for every parent to do so, and reassure them that what happens the other 345 days of the year matters most.) Tough stuff!
And when children see parents standing up for them, it can contribute to the positive relationship and connection at mealtimes and beyond, and help children learn how they can advocate for themselves.
What else? What have you tried with your own families, or that clients have had success with?
From Natalia, Jo, and Katja
Berge, J. M., Fertig, A. R., Trofholz, A., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Rogers, E., & Loth, K. (2020). Associations between parental stress, parent feeding practices, and child eating behaviors within the context of food insecurity. Preventive Medicine Reports, 19, 101146. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2020.101146
Ek, A., Sorjonen, K., Eli, K., Lindberg, L., Nyman, J., Marcus, C., & Nowicka, P. (2016). Associations between Parental Concerns about Preschoolers’ Weight and Eating and Parental Feeding Practices: Results from Analyses of the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire, the Child Feeding Questionnaire, and the Lifestyle Behavior Checklist. PLoS ONE, 11(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147257
Farrow, C., Galloway, A., & Fraser, K. (2009). Sibling eating behaviours and differential child feeding practices reported by parents. Appetite, 52(2), 307–312. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2008.10.009
van der Horst, K. (2012). Overcoming picky eating. Eating enjoyment as a central aspect of children’s eating behaviors. Appetite, 58(2), 567–574. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.12.019
* in food secure households