Supporting a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

fat loss

February 22 – 28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the theme for this year being, “…until eating disorders are history”. What an amazing day that will be — the day eating disorders no longer exist. Until then, however, they are a real-life nightmare for some families and individuals who are lost in a confusing maze of how to get help and how to offer it.


Nothing can be more frustrating than watching someone you love waste away from anorexia or pummel their body with bulimia. The observer experiences a broad range of emotions from fear to grief to anger, all of which results in a slew of attempts to get the person to stop doing what they’re doing.

“If you can eat three meals a day for the next week, I’ll take you to get your nails done… ”

“Don’t you care what you’re doing to this family!?” (this is screamed out)

“Fine, you want to kill yourself? Kill yourself. I’m not going to stand around and watch it happen!”

“You’re not leaving this house until you eat something.”

“Your puke is smelling up the whole house.” (This is said in hopes that shaming the person will cause them to stop)

“You’re a beautiful girl. You don’t need to lose weight.”

On and on it goes. Threatening, pleading, bargaining, shaming, guilt-tripping… the attempts to control the eating disorder individual’s actions are downright astounding sometimes. The irony is,  an eating disorder (ED) is about control. So the more the people around the woman with an ED attempt to control her by one of the aforementioned tactics, the more she is determined that she will not relinquish the control of starving and/or purging.

As frustrating and helpless as it seems, the above ways are not going to help a woman overcome her ED. There are better, more beneficial ways of helping someone through this nightmare than by yelling  (or crying or manipulating) them out of it.

Don’t hover

The thinner and more at-risk a woman is, the harder this is going to be to accomplish for those close to her. The tendency is to watch every single thing she eats like a hawk and follow her for 1-2 hours after her meal to make sure she doesn’t purge. This is only going to cause her to feel more trapped and controlled than she already does, which often backfires into more eating disordered behavior when you aren’t around — which will inevitably happen, as you can’t be there 24/7.

Offer your support and decide together what boundaries are needed

Although hovering isn’t beneficial, just ignoring the ED isn’t either. There is a fine line between the two and it can be extremely difficult to find. If your loved one is a child or adolescent with an eating disorder, it is fair for the family to sit down and talk about what boundaries might be put into place. Obviously, parents can’t stand by and watch their child die. When figuring these boundaries out, allow the individual with the ED give input to the conversation. Don’t make decisions for them, but empower them to make some as well.

For example: A teen girl may tell her parents she doesn’t want them counting out calories for her and flipping out emotionally and verbally if she doesn’t eat a huge meal. But she does agree to eat something, like yogurt or another safe food — usually and ideally — labeled by her therapist and nutritionist, at each meal.

It will be agreed upon, by both sides, that if she fails to eat the foods everyone establishes, Dad and Mom will not “flip out”, but they will be taking her to an extra therapy or nutritionist appointment and should she continue to refuse to eat, she will go for in-patient treatment at a hospital or eating disorder program.

An adult with an eating disorder can be more difficult to help, since they are independent and at an age where they make their own choices. In this case, the best thing to do is ask them what they need from you, and as much as you can, do it. Usually this consists of not parenting them, but simply being their friend.

Get a therapist and nutritionist involved

If the person in question is a minor, this is easier to accomplish than it is if it is an independent adult. If it is a child or teen, allow them to be a part of the process, but if they balk, parents need to go ahead and make these appointments even if the individual doesn’t agree to them being made for her.

Do not attempt to get through an eating disorder without professional help, whatever happens! It is a life-threatening disease and cannot just be taken care of privately as a family.

If your loved one is an adult, encourage them to get professional help, even offering to pay for them, drive them, or accompany them to the first session.

Be the parents, relative, or friend, but don’t be the therapist

Once a therapist and nutritionist have been obtained, let them do their job. Don’t deliver lectures about what the person should do to change their thinking or their actions. They have a therapist who will help them do what they need to. The best thing you can do is focus on being a parent, or a sister, or a friend and leave the mental and emotional parts of the eating disorder to the professional.

Ideally a professional will call in family and close friends in at some point, and help everyone know what their role is, usually with the individuals’ feedback and communication on what they want and need from everyone.  If and when a session like this takes place, don’t become defensive and tell everyone how adversely you are being affected, but instead listen and accept what you are told.

This can be an exercise in self-control that takes all your effort, but it helps build a base of trust. In most cases, simply listening without getting defensive can set the tone for future sessions in which you are able to express to everyone the way the eating disorder has impacted your life. But this can not take place until you allow the one who is experiencing it freedom of expression and a guarantee that an attack will not result if they say what is on their mind.

See the person as more than someone with an Eating Disorder

She may be skin and bones, but she’s also your daughter. Her cheeks may be puffy from throwing up all the time, but she’s still your best friend. Don’t make the ED the distinguishing factor in your relationship. Focus on the other aspects of your relationship instead of just trying to “get them better” from their eating disorder.

Individuals with eating disorders have lost their identity to the pursuit of thinness. One of the best things you can do is not add to that identity by making it the only point of conversation every time you’re both together.

Don’t make a big deal out of what is eaten

I hated this in my recovery! Hated it! I would actually have a good eating day and the next thing I know, the words would come, “Why Melissa, look how much you ate! I am so proud of you!”

While the people saying this were doing nothing but attempting to encourage me, all it did was emphasize that I had “eaten a lot.” In my world, it wasn’t that I had eaten a normal amount, but that I had scarfed food and everyone must have noticed how much of a pig I was. The bigger a deal someone made, the more apt I was to not eat for the next two or three days.

Realize that lectures will just add to negative emotions

For some reason, those watching someone with an eating disorder think that lectures and reality checks (”there are people worse off than you!” or “you’re destroying the family!”) will snap a person out of an ED. Not so! Individuals with EDs usually already have a huge guilt complex and low self-esteem and harsh words will only add to those feelings, thus perpetuating the self-punishment that an ED helps bring about.

Know that the ED individual can’t just “snap out of it”

If the individual is a bulimic, their body is more than likely purging without them even trying anymore. If they are anorexic, they can’t just suddenly consume 2000 calories in a day without being adversely affected. Not to mention, eating disorders are multi-dimensional and there are thought patterns that need to be broken, including a truly distorted perception when looking in the mirror and emotions that are strong enough to result in panic attacks at times.

Eating disorders do not come into recovery overnight. Rather, they are a life-long healing process that may have to be conquered every day. That is why many women will say that they are in eating disorder recovery rather than expressing that they are recovered from an eating disorder.

Educate yourself

Check out sites such as The National Eating Disorder Organization. This organization have helpful resources for those who have loved ones with an eating disorder. Don’t try to go this alone. Learn all you can about why eating disorders develop (but don’t use what you learn to attempt to counsel your loved one).

Knowledge is power, and in this case, power can save a life.

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