Supporting Your Loved Ones with Eating Disorders
First, know that anyone who has an eating disorder isn’t seeking attention or trying to be difficult. They don’t want ‘advice’ from friends and family. They want love and support; listen to them.
Second, know that eating disorders are not a choice. Your loved one cannot just will himself to ‘snap out of it’. If someone comes to you and shares they have an ED, here is what you say (very simply): “thank you for sharing. it means so much that you trust in our friendship enough to confide in me as it must be difficult to share. I love you, I accept you and I’m here for you.”
Finally, your loved one is NOT her eating disorder. There is your daughter or friend deep down in there. Treat her that way.
If you are fortunate enough to be on the recovery journey with a loved one or friend, here is what you need to know.
- Be there when he or she wants to talk. Just listen.
- Always invite him to join you in attending any outings, etc. It’s important to treat him like any other friend.
- Call to say hello. “Hey! I was thinking about you and wanted to see what you were up to. How is school.” No ED talk unless your friend brings it up.
- Do be positive.
- Do not give advice. They get unsolicited ‘advice’ more than you know. Unless you have personally recovered from an ED, then please refrain from suggestions. Instead ask what you can do to support your loved one.
- Don’t constantly ask “how are you doing?” with the undertone of “no, like really, how is the eating disorder going?” Your loved one doesn’t want to feel pressure to report anything if it doesn’t feel right.
Here’s a list of things to say and not to say:
- mention how you are full or starving. EVER. Don’t mention if the food is healthy or unhealthy.
- talk about food while you’re eating (harder than you think) or anytime.
- say the food is tasty or how you are going to have ‘seconds’. Don’t say it has so many calories or how it’s your ‘cheat day.’
- draw attention to your loved one if she is not eating her food. Don’t ask if she is going to eat it. This may cause her to lie, increasing her shame, leading to behaviors. You can always ask LATER. “Hey, how were you feeling during dinner?”
- talk about appearance or how you look. Not how your dress is tight or how it used to fit in high school and still does. Don’t comment on your own or her body or appearance. EVER. Not skinny, beautiful, HEALTHY, nothing. Not even, “You look good.” Your friend and her therapist will discuss this during treatment.
- talk about numbers. Don’t mention weight, calories, how many days you workout. Don’t talk about fasting or dieting.
- tell your friend/family member that you know how she feels or you know what he or she is going through unless you have a diagnosis of an ED.
- comment on grocery items that your friend (roommate) purchases – no matter if the food is healthy or unhealthy. If your loved one requests that you NOT buy a particular food because it is a trigger food, please respect this and keep it at your work or somewhere totally out of site.
So…I’m sure you’re saying, well, what CAN I talk about.
- say “it’s really good to see you. What have you been up to today. How are you?”
- ask if she he has read xyz book? Seen xyz show?
- talk about your passions. Talk about what you love doing. It’s okay if you’re into cooking, you can talk about that. Painting, meditating, getting outside/hiking, whatever.
- talk about movies, podcasts, audiobooks, music, inspirational things
- ask about family or friends. How is ‘so and so’ doing?
- talk about the future – places you want to visit or travel to, things you want to do or see.
- talk about memories, “remember that time…”
If you make a mistake, it’s okay. Don’t dwell or draw attention to it. Move on. Also, if you’re not sure what’s off-limits, you can ASK. What triggers some people may not trigger others. Your friend will appreciate that you care enough to ask.
If you are a parent with a child in your care, do not think you can force your child into eating, out of restricting, out of purging, etc. Instead of making demands, ask open-ended questions. If your child is on a meal plan, support it and don’t question it. Eating similar foods to your child will HELP.
Telling your child you worry about them does not help in the recovery process. Telling them you love them and support them lets your child know she has you in her corner. That opens lines of communication as opposed to your child not sharing things with you to prevent you from worrying further.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is an emotional battle for you too. It’s important for you to take care of yourself so that you can best care for your loved one. Practice regular self-care and love. There are typically local family support groups for ED Recovery. Additionally, at Outshining ED, I offer Family Support calls on how to best be there for your loved one. My mom, step-dad, dad, step-mom, sister (and a few close friends) were on this journey with me for over seven years. Sometimes they screwed up and sometimes they were enormously helpful. We figured it out together and I’m so incredibly grateful for their love and support.