Eating disorders are prevalent, complicated, and often stigmatised. People struggling with them typically have difficulty speaking up and expressing their needs directly. I definitely didn’t speak about it as I felt ashamed about a lot of things I did to change my body. I often didn’t feel understood but I also didn’t feel like it was an open topic to speak about it either.
Here are some ways you can support your loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder whether it be a friend, a family member or your partner. This is a summary of the most common suggestions my clients with an eating disorder have shared with me when I asked them what they would have wished from their friends and family.
Know that it is not your fault
I often hear parents asking themselves if it is their fault and if they contributed to their child’s eating disorder. Please know that it is not your fault. Eating disorders are complex, multifaceted, and never caused by one single factor. They are a combination of genetics and environments. While comments, actions, and behaviours may influence or affect the development of an eating disorder, the person who develops one most likely is genetically predisposed. Most importantly, blame and guilt do nothing to help the journey through recovery.
If you want to know how they are doing, please ask your loved one directly how they are feeling.
Focusing on food and weight is never helpful, please don’t tell someone who has an eating disorder to eat. It is like asking them to jump from a building. It creates a lot of fear and they will withdraw from you even further. One client said to me when her parents told her to eat, she felt like they were against her and wanted her to get fat. Please know that an eating disorder is not rational. It is a mental illness and needs to be seen that way. However focusing on emotions can be extremely healing. Try asking your loved one questions along the lines of what they fear, what they hope for, how their day was, what was challenging…
Focus on other attributes and emotions, NOT their weight/size
Instead of telling your loved one how great they look now that they have gained weight, try to focus on other qualities besides weight. Perhaps their skin is brighter or their hair is healthier, or they appear happier. Taking the focus of size and weight can be extremely helpful for your loved one who is very likely struggling to accept their new body shape/size.
Ask your loved one what they need
Understand that what a person needs may differ at various times. Just like at times you may wish to be left alone, other times you may crave connection. Check in with them regularly and ask them what they need.
Listen. Really listen to your loved one
Clients of mine often tell me they just want someone to listen and be there for them, but not to offer their opinion or advice on a topic. Often they don’t feel like their friends or family are educated enough on the matter to give such advice and can be quite infuriating for them. Listen openly and without judgement. Accept that you can’t change or fix it, but you can listen and offer love, support, and empathy.
Educate yourself on eating disorders
Supporting your loved wiht with an eating disorder will require you educate yourself about eating disorders. It is a mental illness and needs to be taken seriously. You don’t need to have experienced an eating disorder to be bale to support your loved one, but you can show interest by asking questions, reading books, listening to podcasts, going to workshops and seminars.
“I would often talk about the research on recovery I had done, and my boyfriend would listen and learn with me. It helped a lot to have someone interested in the process itself.” – client.
Explore your own relationship with weight and body image
You are not the cause of your loved one’s eating disorder, however if you are a parent, your relationship with your own body very likely has impacted theirs. Be honest with yourself. Are you sending a message that you are not happy with your own body shape or size? Have you expressed your discomfort about your body in the past? Have you eaten different meals to the rest of the family? These are all small but subtle messages that can be picked up by a child which leads to they own body insecurities.
Explore your own weight biases
This one may be difficult. But get really honest with yourself. Do you judge others or comment about them based on their size? Have you ever found yourself saying things such as, “she shouldn’t be wearing that” etc? If you truly want your loved one to believe that their weight does not affect how you feel about them, then show them this is true by not judging others by their weight.
Support them to get help from a professional
A client of mine said to me the best thing her parents could do is to get help for her. That way she felt like they are on her side and want her to get well, instead of telling her to just eat food and that she already looked good. This has also improved her relationship with her parents as they no longer speak about this triggering topic. Both know that she is in good hands and has been making great improvement.
Parents, friends or any family members are not trained in eating disorder recovery and they are also emotionally too close to be able to help their child in a way a professional can do. If you would like to speak to Eugenia how she can support your child, please book a free call with her HERE.
Know that you are a valuable and vital part of your loved one’s journey through recovery
Just the fact that you are reading this article shows that you are invested in learning as much as you can to support your loved one.
“My boyfriend was extremely supportive and helpful. Whenever I questioned myself and my cravings or hunger, he would reassure me that I could and should eat whatever I wanted to.” – client
Try not to comment on their food
Especially when they are eating or really trying to get food down. Commenting on how big their serving is or expressing your surprise that they are eating a lot isn’t helpful. Not only can it draw attention to the food which is likely causing their anxiety, but it also can be extremely triggering for them.
Avoid commenting on their body shape or size
Eating disorders are about more than food and weight. If pointed out that they may have lost weight, they may immediately want to lose more weight. Avoid comments like this that can feed their eating disorder. If you tell them that they look healthy, they may take your (well intentioned) comment as you calling them fat. Any comment on weight is just not helpful.
Don’t tell them about your diet
At the root of eating disorders is the false belief that losing weight will improve health and happiness. Someone with an eating disorder is constantly comparing themselves to others, believing they simply do not measure up. If you are truly interested in your loved one becoming healthy, educate yourself about health. Science simply does NOT support the use of diets to lose weight OR improve health.
Eugenia founder is hosting an evening on Eating Disorder and Body Image Challenge on the 15th November.
The evening will be all about raising awareness and providing hope and help to those who are struggling, carers, family members and friends.