It’s natural to worry when someone you love appears to have an eating disorder. The situation can feel terrifying and like it’s out of your control. You can’t make someone else get better, but you can be an ally in their recovery. Here are some of the things you should and should not do to help.
Eating Disorders Are About More than Food
It would be so simple if eating disorders were just about food. Then you could help to manage it by preparing the right food or providing or restricting access. But eating disorders are complex situations with multiple causes, most of which are designed by the person with the disorder to give them more control over something in their lives. You can’t just force them to eat or prevent them from purging, depending on the specifics of their illness. First, you must resolve the underlying issues, which will almost certainly need professional help.
Don’t Get Sucked into Battles
Every meal can feel like a showdown when someone you love has an eating disorder, especially if it’s your spouse or your child. Don’t get drawn into an emotional battle like begging them to eat a certain amount of food or offering bribes or threats to control their behavior. The key is to disengage. A significant part of eating disorders is about the sick person maintaining control over their life. Fighting battles with them will only further cause them to dig in their heels.
Be Willing to Listen
You may never understand what it feels like to have an eating disorder, but being willing to listen without judgment is one of the kindest and most helpful things you can do. Open communication is an important part of helping someone recover from an eating disorder. You need to be honest about your fears and frustrations. Just as you need to speak up instead of being afraid to do so, you can help provide a safe space for allowing them to discuss their own concerns.
Respect Your Own Limits
Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. When you love someone with an eating disorder, they may unintentionally try to draw you into supporting their behaviors. You may be asked to help cover up their illness, ignore behaviors that bother you or otherwise contribute to their continued illness. Be firm and hold your own ground. You should establish and maintain your own boundaries with them. Do not allow yourself to be fooled by lies or manipulative behaviors.
Recovery from an eating disorder does not happen overnight, and usually, does not follow a straight line. It may seem like your loved one is getting better for a while, and then they may have a relapse of the behavior. This is common and shouldn’t surprise you. Be patient with them as they work toward recovery. Offer your support and encouragement but understand that simple solutions won’t apply.
Realize You Can’t Fix Them
Feeling helpless is one of the hardest things about having a loved one with an eating disorder. But as much as you might like to take away their problem, it’s something that they alone have the power to fix. You can’t resolve their issues for them or force them to pursue treatment. Even if they do decide to get help, they are the only ones who can determine how seriously they will approach their recovery.
Treat Them with Respect
People with eating disorders often display behaviors that you may find confusing, distressing or frustrating. They may be manipulative or dishonest. Yet it’s still essential that you treat them with the same respect as you would any other person. Don’t gossip about their problems or share details of their recovery without permission.
Recovery from an eating disorder is a difficult and often painful process. Your loved one will surely need professional help, including counseling, to get through it. Don’t forget about yourself as well. You may also benefit from counseling and self-care in supporting your loved one through this challenging experience.
Take the First Step
If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder and ready to begin the recovery process, I would like to help. Please contact me via email or phone so that we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Linda K. Laffey, MFT