Choosing a costume isn’t the only Halloween-related decision to make this time of year. Halloween candy leads to the question: To eat, or not to eat? This can be a challenging burden for someone facing an eating disorder.
When discussing “challenge foods,” (meal/snack components that present emotional challenges due to distorted beliefs or intense fear about how it will affect the body), adolescents in Walden’s Intensive Outpatient Program often express the fear of losing control, over-eating, becoming addicted, and gaining a significant amount of weight. For a number of people with eating disorders, Halloween candy is considered a “challenge food,” and arouses similar fears. For individuals who primarily restrict their caloric intake, candy is likely something they have forbidden from their diet, and they may experience significant fear of weight gain – even from an appropriate portion. Individuals who primarily engage in binge behavior may fear losing control and over-eating, and then fear dealing with the subsequent physical discomfort and intense, negative emotions.
Using the Family-Based Treatment Model (FBT), parents are encouraged to supervise their children’s meals and snacks, with the goal of not allowing the power of the eating disorder to take control. Initially, many adolescents find this annoying, frustrating and invasive. With time, adolescents often come to take comfort in the fact that supervision not only ensures they are eating enough, but helps to control binge eating, as well.
Create a plan with your child – perhaps the two of you can have a certain number of pieces of candy after school as a snack. Create a plan for after the snack in case they struggle, such as going for a walk (if medically approved), watching a TV show or driving around to look at fall foliage. This may help distract from potentially negative thoughts following the challenge food. If your child exhibits binge behavior, keep the candy in a safe place and sit with your child as they eat a pre-planned amount. This will help them feel empowered to have an appropriate portion, and to feel less anxious about losing control.Talk to your treatment providers if you need ideas regarding portioning or coping skills.
When it comes to challenging foods, consider helping your child “Check the Facts.” What are the objective facts of the situation? What are their interpretations or thoughts? What is the worry, or threat of the situation? What is the absolute worst case scenario? How likely is it that this worst case scenario will actually happen? How would they cope if it did happen? By asking these questions, it becomes easier to separate personal fears and judgments from the actual facts of a situation. Adolescents often find this Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) exercise helpful, as they realize that the likelihood of them gaining a significant amount of weight from a few pieces of candy is unlikely, or that losing control while their parent is by their side is not likely to happen.
Halloween is an exciting time of year for dressing up, expressing creativity and having fun. By providing comfort regarding food-related fears, you as parents can help your adolescent have a low-stress Halloween that isn’t TOO scary.
About the author:
Erika Vargas, MA, is the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program Clinician at the Braintree location. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.