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Eating Disorders: How to Offer Support

By Christopher Clark

(Page 1 of 2)

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  An individual may turn from being sociable and energetic to being withdrawn and depressed.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 eating disorder:

  1. Approach the person when you are composed, not when you are emotionally upset.

  2. Choose a place where you can talk privately without interruption.

  3. Be gentle and express your concerns for the other person.

  4. Explain that you genuinely care about her and want the best for her.

  5. Don’t vent your anger or other negative feelings.

  6. Use “I statements” rather than “you statements.” For example, “I feel …” rather than “you make me feel …”

  7. Give examples of why you suspect the person has an eating disorder.

  8. 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.

  9. Avoid being judgmental and critical.

  10. 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 flaws.

  11. Be empathetic.

  12. Listen.

  13. 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.

  14. Encourage him to express his feelings.

  15. Don’t blame or manipulate her to change with shame or guilt.

  16. Don’t give ultimatums.

  17. 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).

  18. Remember eating disorders are complex illnesses, so don’t offer simplistic solutions, such as “just eat more.”

  19. 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 your relationship.

  20. Don’t let this discussion turn into an argument. Rather than argue, simply reiterate your concerns and leave it at that.

  21. Be persistent (without pestering) in your efforts to encourage him to seek professional help.

  22. Be prepared to provide contact information of treatment providers and information on eating disorders, if he is willing to seek treatment.

  23. Offer to accompany him to an initial appointment.

  24. Tell him you are available for her to confide in you, if she wants to talk to you.

  25. Explain to him you are ready to support him in whatever way he needs help.

  26. 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.


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