Supporting a Loved One
Do’s and Don’ts of supporting someone with an eating disorder.
Watching someone you care about living with an eating disorder can be extremely tough, especially when you can’t imagine why someone would ever want to do that to themselves. Here is a brief list of some common do’s and don’ts (of course, remember that every individual is different, but these are some general guidelines):
- Complain about the size of your own thighs
- Ask them for diet advice
- Stare at them while they’re eating
- Play food police, monitor everything they eat
- Comment on the size or shape of their body
- Minimize their feelings
- Talk about the calorie content in foods
- Force them to eat everything they’re afraid of all at once. Instead, encourage them to add a few new foods back onto their “safe” list every week.
- Force them to eat large amounts of food all at once. Doing so will likely cause them tremendous anxiety which will trigger them into compensating through purging, exercising, abusing laxatives, or skipping their next meals.
- Punish them for not eating. They don’t eat because they truly believe that they DO deserve to be punished. They’re already punishing themselves. Adding additional punishment only reinforces the negative thoughts they have about themselves.
- Discuss eating disorders, weight, calories, stressful topics, or health issues at meal times. Keep the focus on enjoyable social interaction.
- Deny that there is a problem. Denial will result in a relatively small problem getting progressively bigger and more problematic until it is impossible to deny it any longer. It’s better to address it right away.
- Follow them every time they go into the kitchen. They may start avoiding the kitchen if you keep making it into a big event that requires spectators. Many eating disordered people feel that they are not ALLOWED to eat (regardless of how often they are told to). It is common for them to feel uncomfortable when other people know they are eating.
- Ask how much they weigh. If they’re too thin, too large, or just generally unhealthy-looking, that’s all you need to know. There is no need to add more focus to the issue of “numbers.” A balanced diet should eventually lead to a balanced weight. Leave numbers out of the conversation.
- Discuss other people’s weight, eating habits, or appearance.
- Make judgments about any person based on their physical appearance.
- Compare them to other famous people who have had eating disorders.
- Assume that if they’re not seriously underweight, they’re ok. Even a clinically obese person can be malnourished, and anyone can die at any time from electrolyte imbalance. Not only that, but a person can be in serious emotional and psychological pain no matter what size they are.
- Dismiss their fears about food and weight as “crazy talk.” Many eating disordered thoughts are based on real facts, but are greatly magnified and distorted to the point where they are no longer rational. Instead of just saying “that’s the eating disorder talking,” help them to CONFRONT those thoughts. Encourage them to find facts to dispute their thoughts. Encourage them to question their fears.
- Speak non-judgmentally
- Encourage them to participate in activities completely unrelated to food issues
- Encourage them to continue socializing and avoid isolation (not always easy)
- Give positive feedback about personality traits and unique qualities unrelated to appearance
- Encourage them to learn about balanced diets (note: NOT “dieting,” as in losing weight)
- Gently let them know if they look sick, unhealthy, tired, or sad
- Validate their feelings. Even if you disagree, let them know that they have the right to see things through their own point of view.
- Eat with them, or eat in front of them and offer to share. Many eating disordered people find it easier to eat with others (don’t be forceful though, this is not always easy for them. Make it a safe situation, not a stressful or confrontational one).
- Keep plenty of their safe foods in the house
- Minimize the amount of binge foods in the house, or in plain sight
- Encourage them to eat a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat at every meal
- Educate yourself on the psychology behind eating disorders
- Take care of your own emotional needs. Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be extremely stressful. If you neglect your own emotional well-being, there is a good chance you’ll end up lashing out at the eating disordered person, which will cause them to withdraw and you to feel guilty. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy of your own, or to take time out to focus on something other than the eating disorder.
- Examine your own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors related to food and body image. You cannot effectively encourage someone to confront their own issues with food if you are very obviously ignoring your own.
- Let them know if you have noticed a change in their personality or overall energy level. Again, be clear, but non-judgmental.
- Talk to them about plain, everyday things. Remember that they’re normal human beings who just happen to be incredibly focused on one small aspect of life. Remind them that there is more to who they are than simply food and their weight.
- Remind them of their strengths and long-term goals (or, encourage them to start thinking about what it is that they want to accomplish in life and what kind of a life they will look back on and feel proud of) Again, be gentle and encouraging, not judgmental.