In the past we’ve written blogs on Orthorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder, and the symptoms. What can you do if you think a friend or family member has an eating disorder? Often this question is so difficult to answer that many friends and relatives avoid reaching our to help their loved one. If you would like to try to be a support for your loved one, here is a guide of how to approach them about it.
Educate yourself – Start searching reputable information on the web about the disorder. When you do come to your friend, try to be informed about what they may be going through. It’ll help you find a way to have a useful conversation. Keep to reliable sources though, psychology practices, or mental health organisations websites.
Get support for yourself – Seeing someone you care about go through something like an eating disorder is hard. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the idea and most people don’t know how to deal with it. Being concerned for a loved one can absorb a huge amount of time and energy; make sure you look after yourself too.
Choose the right time – If they have just had a stressful or tiring day, it may not be the best time to try to talk to them. Or if you’ve just had a fight, avoid having this conversation. Try to have the talk when you are both in a fairly calm mood.
Approach them privately – When you go to talk to them, do it one on one, in a place they are very familiar with; like their home or yours. You don’t want them to feel surrounded or out-numbered. They will probably already be feeling like an outsider and vulnerable. If you’re in a familiar place, this can help them feel at ease. Try to choose an environment where the eating disorder may be less present – the dinner table is usually not a good idea to have those first conversations.
If they open up to you, listen! – You may be the one to confront them about it, but they may not be ready to talk about it yet. So when they are, listen. Even if the things they say really scare you, or if you can’t empathise with them, sympathise, listen and be their friend. No judgement, no ‘you should just eat like a normal person’, or ‘you need to get your act together’. Don’t give simple them solutions to something that is very complex as this may result in them feeling misunderstood and shutting own. Try to accept what they are telling you, and show them that you are glad they opened up to you.
Be prepared for denial– Awareness and desire to change are two very changeable factors for someone with an eating disorder. They may deny there is an issue. It is possible you’ve misread the situation. But if you feel you are right, tell them you are concerned, give them support, let them know you’re there for them no matter what comes next and give them any resources you may have found. Give them some space to process what you have said and they may be more likely to open up at a later date.
Remind them they are more than their relationship with their body and food. – They are still your friend or loved one, and that’s not going to change. They are still a student, lawyer, teacher, nurse, mother, father, sister, brother. Their relationship with food and their body does not define them.
Suggest they seek help – During your research, you may have found a professional, whether it’s a psychologist, dietician, doctor or counsellor, who you think might be able to help them. Or you might just suggest for them to see their GP. Like everything else in this discussion, step carefully, framing them as options, not ultimatums. It is important that you don’t take the full responsibility of their recovery on your shoulders but try to help them take steps towards seeking help.
Overall, they are your family member or friend. At the end of the day you are just concerned for them and care for them. Make sure they know that. It is easy for these conversations to end up in an argument, so just tread carefully and keep reiterating to them the love and care you have for them.
Here are some books for further reading:
- Freeing Someone You Love from Eating Disorders – Mary Dan Eades
- Skills-based Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder – Janet Treasure, Grainne Smith and Anna Crane
- Help your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder – James Lock and Daniel Le Grange