How to Support a Loved One With an Eating Disorder
Make no mistake, caring for someone with an eating disorder comes with many challenges. We acknowledge the difficulties that can be experienced in the household, the hardships it can have on relationships and the tenacity one must have to keep pushing through.
You are all warriors, believe me.
At the moment there are 1.25 million people in the UK living with an eating disorder and 5 million people if we count those supporting these individuals.
If you are supporting someone and feel like you aren’t making an impact or you feel helpless, please rest assured that you are KEY to their progress and recovery. You ARE making a difference by just being there and lending a listening ear.
When a loved one might have an eating disorder it can be a difficult subject to raise with them. You may worry you will say the wrong thing or offend them. But remember, just as you would care for someone with a physical illness, eating disorders are serious mental illnesses.
How to communicate concern
- Pick a place where you both feel safe and at ease
- Raise this concern alone and avoid being a group of people as it may feel like they are being bombarded
- Have a conversation away from the dinner table or eating occasions
- Mention behaviours you have noticed that you are concerned about and reassure them you are there for them and you care for them
- If they get defensive and angry, don’t get disheartened
Remember that eating disorders are not about food per se but how a person is feeling and what they are experiencing emotionally and mentally. Eating behaviours are often a coping mechanism to feel in control.
How to support their recovery
- Avoid making comments on appearance e.g. “you look well” may often be interpreted as a comment on weight
- Acknowledge that you know and see they are working really hard and it is difficult – even on the ‘good’ days. Engaging in recovery can be difficult as people don’t want their loved ones to think everything is okay while they take steps towards recovery
- Include them in daily activities and invite them even if they refuse – they still like to be asked and thought of
- Listen and give them your time to show them they are important to you. Even if you don’t have answers, just being there is helpful
- Be patient and empathetic – recovery takes time
- Encourage them to seek support
- Be gentle and talk about it g. “that is not you, that is your eating disorder talking”
- Make meal times less stressful by avoiding food, diet, exercise, weight, or nutrition talk at the table. Foster a positive environment by telling jokes, reminiscing on warm memories, playing games, watching funny videos, sharing stories etc.
How to support a meal
It is important to remember that your loved one’s resistance is driven by fear. The response is akin to a response you may have to sky-diving or being confronted by a king cobra snake on a hiking trail. Refusal to eat is often a result of anxiety related to the perceived threat of food.
NOTE: if they get upset, talk-back, make nasty remarks – it is NOT their true self speaking, rather a show put on by the ED voice as a way to protect itself and maintain its position.
What to do at the dinner table
- Use distraction.such as TV, podcasts, audiobooks or board games. This is highly effective to reduce anxiety around eating
- Remind them they are safe.‘this is what you need’
- Prompt self-kindness and self-compassion.‘I know this must be difficult for you, and that’s okay’, remind them that we are all humans that we all face challenges and that it’s okay for it to be difficult
- Damage limitation. it can be frustrating as a supporter when all you want is for them to get better quickly. If you get upset, blame the eating disorder not them. Something like: “I’m not going to let anorexia hurt you” or “I hate that voice in your head, I am terribly cross that it makes it so difficult for you to eat your breakfast”
- Visualisation, get your child to remember a warm memory or to visualise something she is looking forward to
- Laughter is the best relaxant. Distract with videos, games and television or reminisce on funny memories, read book of jokes at the table or listen to stand up comedy.
- Sit close and present food as medicine
What NOT to do at the dinner table
- Use logic to persuade them: when the brain is in fight-flight-freeze mode, the part of the brain responsible for critical reasoning is not lit up.
- Make the dining room a lecture hall: try to refrain from making the dinner a lecture hall as we want to aim to make the dining experience as pleasant as possible. Refrain from providing information such as ‘your body needs calcium for your bones’
- Shouting, blaming or intimidating is counterproductive
- Threats, punishment and consequences are unnecessary and counterproductive this can make it so not only does your loved one fear the food but the consequence as well.
- Be careful with praise as this can be interpreted as ‘I am getting fat’ OR ‘do not trust your parents or friends’
An important part of supporting your loved one to make them an agent for change. Empower them by asking them what it is that THEY think would be helpful?
There is not right or wrong. By showing up, being supportive and caring can be medicine.
Here are a few of helpful additional resources for you:
- Book: Anorexia and other eating disorders: How to help your child eat well and be well by Eva Musby (2014) or you can visit her website at com
- Book: Skills-based Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder by Janet Treasure (2016)
- Book: Anorexia Nervosa: A Survival Guide for Families and Friends and Sufferers by Janet Treasure (2013)
As eating disorder specialists, we offer 1:1 nutritional counselling support. Book in a FREE enquiry call with us to learn more about how we can support you on your recovery journey. We would love to help.