Supporting Your Loved Ones with Eating Disorders (EDs)
Supporting Your Loved Ones with Eating Disorders (EDs)
Thank you for being here. This is to help loved ones of those struggling with EDs know how to be there, what to say and what not to say. 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 empathy, love and support. Second, know that eating disorders are not a choice. Your loved one cannot just will him or herself to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘control it’. If someone comes to you and shares that they have an ED, here is what you say (very simply): “thank you for sharing with me. it means so much that you trust in our friendship enough to confide in me as it must be difficult for you to share. I love you, I accept you and I’m here for you.” I’ll never forget when I told a dear friend about my ED over the phone; my therapist at the time encouraged me to share and tell close friends. Her response: “you know you’re hurting your body so badly and you may never be able to have children if you keep it up.” This hurt me so much and made me not want to tell anyone ever again. (fyi we are still dear friends today) It was triggering to open up and get no love and support back.
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 calls you. Pick up the phone and just listen.
- Always invite him or her to attend parties, functions, dinner, etc. It’s important to treat him or her as if they are normal. Your friend probably won’t be comfortable going to a pool party or the lake. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t invite him or her.
- Do pick up the phone and call him or her to say hello. You don’t need to ask about the ED. You can say “hey friend! I was thinking about you while I was shopping and just wanted to see what you were up to. What are your plans today or how was your day or week. How is work or school going.”
- Do be positive. Don’t be negative or complain.
- Do not give your friend or family member advice. They get unsolicited ‘advice’ more than you know. Unless you have personally recovered from an ED, then please refrain from suggestions as sometimes they end up feeding the eating disorder rather than supporting 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 friend or family member doesn’t want to feel pressure to report anything or open up if it doesn’t feel right. Here’s a list of things to say and not to say:
Here’s a list of things to say and not to say:
– Do not talk about food while you’re eating (harder than you think) or anytime.
- Don’t mention how you are so full or starving. EVER. Don’t mention if the food is healthy or unhealthy.
- If you’re at dinner or at a party, that’s great. Put food out. Any food you want.Just don’t talk about it. Don’t say how it’s so tasty or how you are going to have ‘seconds’. Don’t say it has so many calories. Don’t say you worked out today so you can eat it. Don’t say it’s your ‘cheat day.’ Don’t say, well I probably shouldn’t eat. No comments on eating or the food. AT ALL. No exceptions.
- If your friend or family member is not eating his or her food, do not draw attention to it. Don’t ask her if she is going to eat it. This may cause her to lie, increasing her shame, leading to behaviors.
- Instead, you can always ask LATER how she was doing during dinner. “Hey, how were you feeling during dinner? I want to ask if it was difficult for you? I understand if you don’t want to talk about it now but I’m here when you do.”
– Do not talk about appearance or how you look. Don’t say how your dress is tight on you or how it makes you look a little big in the hips. Don’t say it used to fit you in high school and still does. Don’t tell your friend that she looks beautiful or she looks better. Don’t comment on her body or appearance. EVER. Never ever ever. Not skinny, not you look HEALTHY, nothing. Never use those words. Not even, “You look good.” Your friend and his or her therapist will discuss appearance and other topics during treatment, but this can be a big trigger during recovery.
– Do not talk about numbers. Don’t mention weight, calories, how many days you workout or do yoga. Don’t use numbers. Don’t talk about fasting or dieting. Don’t talk about going shopping and how nothing fit you.
– Do not 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.
– Do not comment on grocery items that your friend (roommate) or family member purchases. This can be very triggering – no matter if the food is healthy or unhealthy – no comments. If your loved one requests that you not buy a particular food because it is a trigger food, please respect this and buy it privately or keep it at your work or somewhere totally out of site. So…I’m sure you’re saying, well, what CAN I talk about.
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?”
– Have you 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. (you’re not talking about eating the food). Talk about painting, meditating, getting outside/hiking, whatever.
– 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 and comment on how good your friend looks or mention your food at dinner, 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 your friend or family member. What triggers some people may not trigger others. Your friend will appreciate that you care enough to ask him or her.
If you are a parent with a child in (or out of) your care, do not think you can force your child to 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, please support that. You do not need to change all of your own eating habits at home, but it is crucial to help and support your loved one in following his or her meal plan. Eating similar foods will HELP. Eating foods that are totally different won’t necessarily hurt, but this can be a trigger for some people. Tread carefully and when in doubt,ask. 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 that they have you in their 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. Without them, achieving full recovery would have been so much more of a struggle.