|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withdrawn and depressed.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
- Approach the
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.
- Avoid being
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
- Be empathetic.
- 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.
The next question is, “How do I continue to give
on-going support to a family member or friend with an
eating disorder?” If someone remains in denial of
their eating disorder, continue from time-to-time to
express your concern for the person and encourage him to
seek treatment, but do so without pestering. If
the person acknowledges his or her eating disorder and
seeks professional help, support him or her in the
therapeutic process. Eating disorders may involve
a lengthy time in therapy and most likely will be marked
by steps forward and steps backwards. Be patient
and understanding of the person with the eating
disorder. The following offers a list of ways to
support a person with an eating disorder:
- Be willing to listen
when he is ready to confide in you.
- Be empathetic,
understanding the challenges in overcoming an eating
- Be patient with her,
realizing that changing thought patterns, habits, and
behaviors takes time.
- Be honest with him, but
not judgmental and critical.
- Respect her freedom to
make her own decisions and choices. For example, what
she eats or decides not to eat.
- Avoid power struggles
over food and other issues. He will only resent you for
taking his power of control away from him.
- Do not monitor her food
intake and behavior.
- Refrain from giving
- Try to minimize, rather
than maximize his anxiety level. For example, don’t
bring up subjects at meals that might upset him.
- Make her responsible for her own behavior. For
example, cleaning up the bathroom after vomiting or
buying food she binges on.
- Don’t be an enabler by inconveniencing
yourself to accommodate his eating disorder needs, such
as by only preparing foods he will eat or avoiding
social eating situations.
- Say things that build her self-esteem, such as
pointing out her strengths, her positive character
traits, and what you admire about her.
- Acknowledge his progress in therapy by
pointing out his changes in his behavior and way of
thinking, ability to better connect with others in
relationships, and improvements in character,
functioning, and mood.
- Don’t make comments, even positive ones, about
weight, appearance, eating, or exercise as these may be
taken the wrong way. For example, don’t say “you look
healthier” as this may be interpreted by the person with
the eating disorder as “I look fatter.”
- Be a model of effective coping skills, healthy
food attitudes and behaviors, and moderate exercise.
- Watch your language. For example, don’t label
food as good/bad and safe/unsafe.
- Don’t talk about other people’s appearance and
weight and dieting to her or anyone. Talking about these
things objectifies people, basing their worth on
external, rather than internal qualities.
- If you hear others making comments about
someone related to appearance and weight, shift the
emphasis to the person’s internal qualities. If someone
is talking about dieting in order to lose weight, shift
the emphasis to health.
- Educate yourself about eating disorders, so
you are better able to help and support the person with
the eating disorder.
- Be willing to participate in therapy, if
- Be willing to seek professional help for your
own issues or to get help coping with your loved one’s
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