Not sure what to do or say around a family member with an eating disorder? It’s normal to want to help someone with an eating disorder, but it’s crucial you approach it in the right way.
1. Treat him or her like a normal person.
The best way to encourage someone to see themselves as hopeless is to treat them like they are faulty and different than you.
Remember that he or she is still the person they always were. They are just not well at the moment.
The eating disorder is a sickness, and a potentially very dangerous one, true. But would you treat someone with the flu as if they had done something terrible, and you didn’t know what to do with them?
[Worried that you yourself might have an eating disorder? Or feel unable to cope with a son or daughter’s eating problem?Book a therapist who understands and can actually help you.]
2. Don’t make comments about their eating or body.
It’s simply not helpful to tell an anorexic they need to gain weight, or warn a bulimic to not overeat. And you don’t need to talk about how you eat, either, or ask them for permission to eat in front of them.
Comments like these make the person feel ashamed, and shame makes people act out even more.
3. Keep your advice and sympathy to yourself.
Platitudes in particular help nobody. Things like ‘you just have to cheer up’, or ‘you have to be strong’ again just make someone feel ashamed. If it really was that simple, he or she would have figured that out by now.
Replace sympathy with empathy. While sympathy, feeling sorry for someone, makes someone feel embarrassed and pathetic, empathy means you care about someone’s suffering but don’t see them as powerless. For more on the important difference, read our article “Sympathy vs Empathy“.
These days our understanding of eating issues is much better. There are evennew eating disorder diagnoses that cover a wider range of symptoms than just ‘anorexic’ and ‘bulimic’.
When we understand something, we are more comfortable around it and are more able to extend empathy.
5. Have normal conversations and be yourself.
Eating disorders happen when someone feels emotional pain and is overwhelmed by the world around them that they can’t control.
If everyone who knows about their eating disorder tiptoes around the sufferer, they then feel even more alone against all this.
The most helpful thing is to be yourself and talk about things you always did. If you like to talk about politics or school, dating or sports, if this was what you used to talk about, then still do.
Better yet, why not ask the person what they want to talk about? And practice your best listening skills?
6. Don’t pretend their eating disorder doesn’t exist.
Of course acting like things are just like they always were is not helpful, either. Things clearly are not the same.
So while it’s important to connect in the same ways you used to, pretending the eating disorder doesn’t exist will just feel uncomfortable for you and the other person.
It’s normal to mention the eating disorder. Just do it in a sensitive way. Keep the conversation between you and them, ask questions and listen without offering advice, and then just let them know you are always there if and when they want to talk.
If this is not true, and you are unable to be a support, it’s better to be honest about that. Not everyone is good at helping, and promising something we can’t deliver can be a disappointment the other person just doesn’t need at this time. Instead, offer to help find support. “I wish I could be helpful but I am not very good at these things, but I would be happy to help you find support elsewhere”.
7. Please don’t guilt trip your friend or relative.
“You are killing your mother with this,” “the family is falling apart because of you”, “don’t you think this is a little selfish?”
Look. It’s okay and even normal to think these things. They are real things we think when faced with the powerless feeling of watching someone we care about destroy their health and endanger their life. Our minds reach to blame in order to try to understand things.
But these are things to work out for yourself, on your own time, or in family therapy, where it’s a safe environment to vent.
What if you aren’t sure he or she has an eating disorder and want to ask?
Asking a loved one if they have a problem is actually a good idea. Yes, you might be wrong. He or she might just be stressed. Even so, an honest conversation can help them. And if it is an eating disorder, you might help save their life.
Often people who suffer from an eating disorder feel ashamed about their problem. So they will avoid reaching out for help. If you reach out first, it can be a lifeline.
Again, this is very much about choosing the right moment and being very sensitive. We’d recommend you read our article on ‘Telling Loved Ones They Need Counselling’, as all the same rules apply. Pick a good moment, be educated and prepared, keep it between them and you, listen, don’t judge.
What if you just can’t handle the situation anymore?
Is it a close family member you live with who is going through an eating disorder? Do you feel overwhelmed by your anger and frustration around it?
Families are working units. And when one person isn’t well, it can often signify issues running through the family itself.
One of the best things you can do for a family member with an eating disorder is seek support yourself. You will not only learn how to manage your emotions, but how to communicate better.
Family therapy is also highly recommended for eating disorders. It can mean the person with the disorder has a far higher chance of getting better.