ARTICLES / General /Eating
Disorders: How to Offer Support /
By Christopher Clark
If you are a spouse or parent of someone with an
eating disorder, you are all too aware of that feeling
of helplessness as you watch your loved one’s physical
and psychological condition deteriorate. You may
notice changes in personality. An individual may
turn from being sociable and energetic to being
withdrawn and depressed.
If you suspect a family member or friend has an eating
disorder, you should discuss your concerns in private
with the person. It is important to address these
issues earlier rather than later after one becomes
entrenched in eating disordered thought patterns,
behaviors, and habits. Generally, the longer one
has an eating disorder, the longer treatment will take.
It is very difficult for most people to talk to others
and admit to their eating disorder. Most people
feel ashamed and embarrassed by their problem.
Additionally, those with this illness may fear losing
the safety of their eating disorder. Eating
disorders are negative ways of coping with conflict,
stress, and negative feelings, but these negative coping
mechanisms feel safe and comfortable, so they are
difficult to break. The list below suggests how to
approach the fragile discussion of addressing someone’s
person when you are composed, not when you are
Choose a place
where you can talk privately without interruption.
Be gentle and
express your concerns for the other person.
Explain that you
genuinely care about her and want the best for her.
Don’t vent your
anger or other negative feelings.
Use “I statements” rather
than “you statements.” For example, “I feel …” rather
than “you make me feel …”
Give examples of
why you suspect the person has an eating disorder.
Help him see not
only how his eating disorder affects his physical
health, but also help him understand how it affects his
relationships and functioning, and interferes with
achieving his goals, and how it makes him feel.
judgmental and critical.
Build-up her self-esteem by
emphasizing her good qualities and her strengths, what
you admire about her. It is important to do this,
because encouraging someone to seek treatment can seem
like you are being critical of her and seeing only her
Ask open-ended questions (- questions that
require an explanation, rather than simply a yes or no
response) when asking questions, in order to expand your
understanding of how the other person thinks or feels.
Encourage him to express his
Don’t blame or manipulate her to
change with shame or guilt.
Don’t give ultimatums.
Help him to understand there is no
shame in seeking professional help. Help him see therapy
as an opportunity to make one’s life better (and you
want the best for him).
Remember eating disorders are
complex illnesses, so don’t offer simplistic solutions,
such as “just eat more.”
Reaffirm your love or friendship
with the person, explaining you like him, but not the
eating disorder part of him that is destroying him and
Don’t let this discussion turn
into an argument. Rather than argue, simply reiterate
your concerns and leave it at that.
Be persistent (without pestering)
in your efforts to encourage him to seek professional
Be prepared to provide contact
information of treatment providers and information on
eating disorders, if he is willing to seek treatment.
Offer to accompany him to an
Tell him you are available for her
to confide in you, if she wants to talk to you.
Explain to him you are ready to
support him in whatever way he needs help.
Respect an adult’s decision to
refuse treatment as long as his condition is not
life-threatening. If his condition is
life-threatening, consult a therapist for an
intervention to get him into treatment.