Eating disorders wreak havoc on people’s lives. Not only does the person with the eating disorder suffer, but the experience is painful for their family and friends as well. It can be hard to know what to do to support your loved one with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are severe illnesses with dangerous physical consequences. You need to know that your love and support alone can’t “cure” your loved one of an eating disorder.
With that being said, there are some things you can do to support someone through this difficult time. A robust social support system is an important part of eating disorder recovery. Especially if your loved one is ashamed to seek help for their eating disorder, having your support can make a big difference.
Here are nine ways to help someone with an eating disorder and a few things you should avoid doing.
Learn About Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are still very misunderstood and stigmatized. There are so many common myths about eating disorders, which can make people who live with eating disorders feel even worse than they already do. For example, some people may (incorrectly) believe that all people with eating disorders are thin; this may make your loved one feel like their experience isn’t valid if they aren’t underweight.
Avoid perpetuating these myths by learning everything you can about eating disorders. Our blog is filled with articles to help you learn about different eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association is another good resource.
Learning about eating disorders can also help you recognize their warning signs. Although different eating disorders have different symptoms, some signs that someone is living with an eating disorder include:
- They are preoccupied with issues of weight, body image, and dieting
- They’re uncomfortable eating around you and others, and may even avoid eating around other people
- They have very specific rituals around food or only eat certain foods
- They frequently check their body in the mirror
- Their weight fluctuates
- If they have female reproductive systems, they are missing periods or have an irregular period
- They have dry skin and/or brittle nails
- They start wearing baggy clothes to hide their weight
- They are withdrawing from their usual friends and hobbies
If you learn about eating disorders, you can recognize these signs and help get your loved ones connected to the treatment they need.
Help Them Access Professional Treatment
Again, your support alone isn’t likely enough to “cure” your loved one of an eating disorder. All eating disorders are serious illnesses and usually require treatment. Professional eating disorder treatment can help your loved one heal and make the necessary changes to leave their eating disorder behind.
You can support your loved ones to get the treatment they need. Sit down with them to look up therapists or treatment centers. Listen to them when they tell you what they’re looking for in a treatment provider. Your loved one may also be ambivalent about going to treatment in the first place. Listen to their concerns and compassionately move them toward getting the help they need.
It can be overwhelming and stressful to start the process of treatment for any illness, including eating disorders. You can also help your loved one in pragmatic ways to make things less stressful. For example, you can help them look through their insurance network’s provider list to find someone who may be able to help. You can make initial phone calls to set up their intake appointments.
Help your loved one choose treatment providers that have specific experience helping people with eating disorders. The Center • A Place of HOPE has over three decades of experience helping people like your loved one recover from disordered eating.
Sometimes, people with eating disorders are relieved that someone has noticed their behaviors. Your loved one might be grateful you’ve noticed something was wrong, and have reached out to help them.
But it doesn’t always go this smoothly. People with eating disorders often go to considerable lengths to hide their symptoms and behaviors. Your loved one might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or even angry that you noticed. They may not want to talk to you about their eating disorder and may even deny having a problem outright.
Be prepared for this kind of reaction. Not every attempt to help will go smoothly. If your loved one reacts negatively, give them some space. Returning their anger will only make the situation more difficult. Try not to take their reaction personally.
When you decide to approach your loved one about their eating habits, be as empathetic as you can. Just because you don’t live with an eating disorder doesn’t mean you can’t try to put yourself in their shoes. Be careful not to criticize or lecture your loved one.
Think about how much your loved one is suffering, and don’t forget that your goal is to support them in reducing their suffering. Listen to what they say without judgment, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at first. If you have a question, ask it in an empathetic way. For example, instead of asking, “Why would you do this to yourself?” try asking, “I want to understand what it’s like. Can you explain it to me?”
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Motivational Interviewing, an evidence-based intervention for behavior change, suggests that people have their own reasons for changing or staying the same. In other words, your loved one’s reasons for wanting to change their eating behaviors may be completely different from yours. It’s their reasons, not yours, that will be more convincing.
Instead of lecturing your loved ones about the different reasons they need to recover from their eating disorder, try to ask them open-ended questions instead. The purpose behind your questions should be to explore why your loved one may want to recover from their eating disorder and develop a healthier relationship with their body.
For example, try asking them things like:
- “What would life be like if you didn’t have an eating disorder?”
- “What does your eating disorder prevent you from doing?”
- “What life goals would be possible for you to accomplish if it wasn’t for your eating disorder?”
By asking open-ended questions, you can help your loved one start to envision a life past eating disorder recovery.
Use I-Statements to Share Your Feelings
Instead of attacking or blaming your loved one for their eating disorder, focus on your own feelings of concern. One healthy way to communicate during these difficult conversations is by using “I-statements.” I-statements focus on your feelings rather than the other person’s actions. This can lead to more understanding and less blame.
For example, instead of saying, “You don’t eat enough! You’re stick thin!” try saying, “I feel so worried when I see you getting thinner and thinner.” Instead of saying, “You scare me when you binge and purge,” try saying, “I feel scared when I see you binge and purge because I love you and I don’t want you to put your health at risk.”
Watch How You Talk About Your Own Body
In so many ways, it’s considered “normal” in our society to talk about our bodies in a less-than-positive way. Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, you might become frustrated at yourself after having one too many cookies, or tell your friends that you need to go on a diet.
Try to be mindful of the way you talk about your body and food, especially in front of your loved one. Most people with eating disorders (with a few exceptions, like people with ARFID or orthorexia) are preoccupied with body image and weight. Their obsession with dieting and achieving an ideal body shape is interwoven with their disordered eating patterns.
Don’t contribute to diet culture by insulting your own body. Try to model a healthy body image by expressing gratitude toward your body for everything it does for you.
Get Involved in Their Treatment
If it’s a close family member, like your sibling or child, who lives with an eating disorder, then it may be beneficial for you to be involved in their treatment. Especially for adolescents, family therapy is a large part of a holistic treatment program. Strengthening family relationships is important for adults with eating disorders as well.
If you’re in touch with your loved one’s treatment team, talk to them about how deeply you should be involved. Their team should be able to tell you to what extent, and at which times, you should participate in your loved one’s treatment.
Take Care of Yourself
Depending on your relationship with your loved one, their eating disorder may become very disruptive to your life as well as theirs. For example, if your spouse lives with anorexia, mealtimes together may become extremely stressful events.
Make sure you take care of yourself through this process as well. Your loved one’s eating disorder may feel urgent at times, but if you’re burnt out and depleted, you won’t be able to fully support your loved one. It’s perfectly okay to have boundaries, and to take some time to take care of yourself.
What Not to Do When a Loved One Has an Eating Disorder
There are also things that you should definitely avoid when supporting a loved one with an eating disorder. Stay away from the following things.
Don’t comment on their weight or body.
Again, there are many popular misconceptions about people with eating disorders — one of the most common ones being that they’re all underweight. Avoid making any comments about your loved one’s weight or body size when talking to them about their eating disorder.
It should go without saying that this includes “compliments” about their body. For example, obviously don’t say, “But you’ve lost so much weight, and you look great!” But even saying that your loved one looks “great” after they recover may be tricky; they may interpret this as “You’ve gained weight.” or “You look like you’re eating a lot.” Stay away from the topic altogether, and focus the conversation on your concern for their well-being.
Don’t lecture them or shame them.
It’s painful to watch someone you love go through something as serious as an eating disorder. It’s likely that you see your loved one in a totally different light than they see themselves. It’s hard when someone you think is so great treats themselves so badly. This can sometimes lead to statements like, “Why would you ever do this to yourself? You’re already so thin — why can’t you see that?”
Avoid lecturing or shaming your loved one in this way. Understand that their eating disorder makes them see themselves in a different (and often, not-so-positive) light. This is the nature of the disorder.
Don’t give them unsolicited advice.
It may be tempting to give your loved one advice about how they can overcome their eating disorder. This temptation may be even stronger if you’ve overcome some type of eating problem yourself. You might (incorrectly) assume that if it worked for you, then it would work for them.
Resist the temptation to give advice. If your loved one wants or needs advice from you, then they’ll ask you for it. Talk to them with the assumption they know themselves best. What they need is usually a listening ear — not advice. If you’re unsure if your loved one wants advice, just ask them. Try saying something like, “I’m happy to just be a listening ear and support you through this. Do you just need to vent, or would you like my opinion on this?”
Don’t give ultimatums.
It’s understandable that you desperately want your loved one to get the help they need. Although it may be tempting, avoid giving ultimatums to try to pressure or force them into treatment. An example of an ultimatum might be a statement like, “If you don’t go into treatment, then we can’t be friends anymore.”
Of course, in certain scenarios, you may feel you need to leave the relationship to take care of yourself. These situations are beyond the scope of this article — but keep in mind that, in general, ultimatums aren’t helpful or effective. Your loved one needs to have some level of internal motivation in order to make a real change.
Don’t enable their eating disorder.
Be careful of unintentionally enabling your loved one’s eating disorder or behaviors. Enabling is any way that you may make it easier for your loved one to continue their eating disorder. For example, you may clean up after they’ve purged, or make excuses to your friends as to why your loved one is losing or gaining weight.
You may be doing these things to try to “help” your loved one, and that is commendable. However, enabling only allows your loved one to stay stuck in their eating disorder. Changing your life around to accommodate your loved one’s eating disorder can also lead to burnout. True support is sometimes firm, and always truthful. If you’re concerned about your loved one, don’t hide your feelings so they can feel comfortable continuing their behaviors.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Lastly, be careful about the promises you make to your loved one — and don’t make any that you won’t be able to keep. For example, your loved one may ask you not to tell anyone about their disorder. It may not be possible to keep this promise and keep your loved one safe at the same time.
Some things you can say instead include:
- I will be here to support you.
- I’ll try to act in your best interest to the best of my abilities.
- I want you to be well.
Eating Disorder Treatment at The Center • A Place of HOPE
It’s difficult to watch your loved one battle an eating disorder. But recovery is possible. At The Center, we have over 3 decades of experience helping people like your loved one recover from disordered eating, and our team truly cares about helping people heal their relationship with food. Our residential treatment program for eating disorders accepts many different insurance plans, and financing is also available.
There are specialized programs for women, men, and adolescents at our program. All of our programs take a whole-person approach, which means we’ll see your loved one as a complete human being, not just an eating disorder patient.
To learn more about our admissions process and how your loved one can start their treatment journey with us, get in touch with us today.