Eating disorders can have a profound effect on family members and friends. Parents in particular can often feel guilty, confused, upset, worried and frustrated about what is happening to their son or daughter. Eating disorders may develop slowly and in secret. Family members are often unaware of what’s going on for some time. It can be challenging to support someone with an eating disorder because of how it makes the person feel is often hard to others to understanding.If you think of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, it makes it more understandable as to why a person may be resistant to talking about it and they may be very fearful and become anxious at the prospect of change. This, in turn, makes communication around the issue stressful. Each person’s experience of an eating disorder is unique, but with time, appropriate support and help, people can and do recover from eating disorders.
6 key components when supporting someone
- Keep the ‘idea’ of an eating disorder as a way of coping with difficult feelings in your mind and use this to guide your approach how you support the person
- Generally, there is little to be gained from focusing on food. Approaching a person about food, or focusing on this, often ends up in an argument or power struggle. Try a different approach – try talking about something else.
- Be careful of power struggles. The all or nothing thinking that an eating disorder thrives on on can push families into all or nothing positions. When this happens, nobody except eating disorder the wins. Think about how to meet the person in the middle, how to get them to compromise, and how you can work together.
- Take small steps towards change. Change is so frightening for a person it is important to break any change down into manageable steps and have the patience to do one at a time.
- Model healthy boundaries. People with eating disorders are very sensitive and concern themselves with how other people are feeling, and ensuring those they love are OK. It is important for you to model healthy emotional boundaries, to help the person to learn that they do not have responsibility for everyone else’s feelings.
- Self-care. An eating disorder can take over a household. You need to look after yourself and try to model self-care and self-compassion, to sustain you in your support for your loved one.