If you have a loved one with an eating disorder, navigating how to best support them can be challenging. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, but you also know that you have to address it and not ignore it. Eating disorders are complicated and at their core, they are brain-based illnesses that no one would choose. While you can’t force a person with an eating disorder to change, you can offer your support and encourage treatment. This can make a major difference to your loved one’s recovery.
How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder
1. Learn about eating disorders. The most essential first step to supporting your loved one’s recovery is being prepared and educating yourself as much as possible on eating disorders. Not only will this help you understand what they are dealing with, but it also shows that person that you truly care about what they’re going through.
2. Ask questions and listen without judgment. Asking about your loved one’s feelings and concerns shows that you care, but you must also truly listen to what they are saying. Do your best to avoid criticizing or advising them. You may not fully understand what they are going through, but it’s important that they know they are being heard and that their feelings are valid.
3. Use appropriate language. Using “I” statements is critical when discussing your loved one’s behavior. For example, try saying “I’m worried that you haven’t been eating with us anymore,” instead of “You’re not eating!” Or “I’m concerned that you are going to the bathroom after every meal,” instead of “You’re purging everything you eat!” Focus on behaviors you have personally observed and make sure that you do not come across as accusatory, as that could cause your loved one to become defensive.
4. Be mindful of triggers. Avoid discussions about food, weight, or eating, or making negative statements about your own body. But don’t be afraid to eat in front of someone with an eating disorder. It can help set an example of a healthy relationship with food.
5. Take care of yourself. It’s pertinent not to become so preoccupied with your loved one’s eating disorder that you then neglect your own needs. Make sure you have time for relaxation and find your own support, either from a friend, confidant, therapist, or support group.
How Not to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder
1. Try to “fix” the issue. Recovery is a process and it takes time. Avoid overly simplistic solutions, such as saying, “All you have to do is accept yourself.” Eating disorders are complex problems. If it were that easy, your loved one wouldn’t be suffering.
2. Blame yourself. Eating disorders require all three of these factors to develop: psychological, environmental, and biological. Comments about someone’s weight can certainly have an impact on them, for example, but comments are not the sole reason for the formation of an eating disorder. Once you can accept that the eating disorder is not anyone’s fault, you can be free to take action that is honest and not clouded by what you “should” or “could” have done.
3. Disparage your body. Many people with eating disorders are hyper-aware of what people around them are eating, how much they weigh, and how they look in their clothing. Commenting negatively on your own body can make a person with an eating disorder even more focused on weight and food. When you find yourself wanting to disparage your body, think about who you are around and also examine why you feel the need to do so.
4. Engage in power struggles over food. Attempts to force your loved one to eat will only cause conflict and bad feelings and likely lead to more secrecy and lying. That doesn’t mean you can’t set limits or hold your loved one accountable for their behavior. But don’t act like the food police, constantly monitoring their behavior.
5. Comment on your loved one’s body. People with eating disorders are often overly focused on their bodies. Even assurances like, “Your body looks great!” could play into their preoccupation with appearance. Instead, steer the conversation to their feelings.
Supporting a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery
One of the most important things you can do for someone with an eating disorder is to let them know that they are loved and respected regardless of the way they look or the behaviors they exhibit because of their eating disorder. Another thing to remember is that if you have done or said things in the past that you now know you should avoid doing, those things did not cause the eating disorder to occur. The important thing is that you educate yourself and keep striving to be more supportive going forward.
Are you or a loved one interested in learning more about eating disorder recovery? Explore Veritas’ core program elements.