Seeing a friend or family member struggle with an eating disorder is an emotionally taxing and difficult situation to navigate. Oftentimes, people do not know how to help someone struggling with an eating disorder in terms of what to say, do, or even think. While it is such an individualized topic, here is our advice on how to help a friend or family member with an eating disorder, along with some universal things to try to avoid.
How to help someone with an eating disorder:
- Be there for them
- The most important thing you can do to support your friend or family member is be there for them. Let them know that you are by their side, you care about them, and you will not abandon them. People struggling with an eating disorder can have a tendency to push friends away by being distant and always canceling plans. Remind yourself that this is not personal, but rather the eating disorder voice telling them to avoid any social situation which may involve food. Telling your friend that you still love and care about them can make them feel supported and seen.
- Ask them what they need
- Gently asking your friend what they need is a good way to find out what concrete actions you can take to help them. Would they prefer if you did not say anything, or would they appreciate you checking in once in a while to see how they are progressing? Be prepared for them to not know exactly what they need at that moment. If that is the case, give them some time to think and maybe revisit the conversation at a later time.
- Express lack of judgment
- People struggling with eating disorders are often ashamed and embarrassed by it. It’s important to speak to your friend or family member with an air of gentleness and care about their well-being. No amount of judgment should be expressed as this may cause your friend to distance themselves even further.
- Get perspective and show empathy
- Talking about their eating disorder is probably very difficult for your friend. Instead of solely relying on them to explain it to you, utilize reliable online resources to get educated on the topic and gain insight into what your friend is going through. Understand that anorexia, binge eating, bulimia, and other eating disorders do not occur by choice and are serious mental illnesses. Knowing more about your friend or family member’s experience will allow you to express more empathy to your friend which they will likely appreciate.
- Do not make assumptions
- Society has perpetrated the idea that someone struggling with an eating disorder looks a certain way – usually abnormally skinny female. In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate. Eating disorders affect people regardless of their shape, size, age, gender, race, or sex. In fact, less than 6% of people with eating disorders are classified as underweight. Being in a larger body is often a barrier to getting proper diagnosis and treatment. Know that you can not tell if someone has or does not have an eating disorder by looking at them.
- Although eating disorders are more prevalent in women compared to men, about one third of the 70 million people struggling with an eating disorder worldwide are men.
- A good way to support someone with an eating disorder is to validate their individual experiences and not make assumptions based on stereotypes. You can even ask their permission to ask questions about their eating disorder to help you underhand their individual experience.
Things to avoid saying to someone with an eating disorder:
- “Just eat”
- Saying things like “Just eat” or “Why are you so scared to eat” and other such phrases come across as insensitive and unhelpful. It signals to your friend or family member that you do not understand what they are going through and are judging them for their actions. For someone battling an eating disorder, it is not always as easy to simply eat a meal like it is for others. Pushing them to do something they are not comfortable with will likely only distance them even further and cause them to feel ashamed and attacked. While you are likely saying these things because you are scared, know that this is not helpful to someone with an eating disorder.
- Comments about their body or weight
- Making verbal observations about your friend’s physical appearance like “I wish I was that skinny” or “You would look better if you lost/gained weight” are quite harmful. Validating how skinny they are may show your friend that the eating disorder is “working” especially since people are noticing results. This may send them down a more extreme path of restriction along with a need for validation from others. Making comments that your friend would look better if they lost or gained weight only further reinforces the negative idea that beauty is tied to weight and outer appearance. It is also important to stay away from any kind of “fat talk” around them. Even if the comment is about your own body, such as “I feel so fat.”
- Things that normalize eating disorders
- Saying things like “I skip meals too” or “When I overeat, I don’t eat the next day” or “I can’t eat that, I didn’t work out today” only magnifies the eating disorder voice in your family member or friend’s head instead of silencing it. Seeing these harmful messages reinforced by others may lead your friend to believe that they do not have an eating disorder and their thoughts and behaviors around food are normal. These comments can set back their journey to recovery and deter them from seeking help so they should be avoided entirely.
What to do if you’re concerned someone has an eating disorder, but they haven’t shared this to you.
If you want to know how to help someone with an eating disorder, but your friend or loved one has not shared to you that they have an eating disorder, some additional things that are helpful are:
- Make sure you find a private place to talk to them about it.
- Use I statements in terms of what you have noticed and why you feel concerned. For example, “ I notice you have been skipping breakfast and lunch and telling me you feel exhausted. I am feeling worried about you.”
- Talk to them about how therapy can help and even offer to help them find a therapist if they are open to it. If they are completely resistant to therapy, it can be helpful for you to meet with a therapist to get counsel on what you can do. If you are finding a therapist for them or yourself, make sure it is someone who specializes in eating disorders.
- Express empathy and validate their feelings. This is likely going to be very hard for them to talk about.
Being there to support and help someone with an eating disorder is not easy. It can be a long, painful, and confusing process, but it is worth it to see them come out on the other side as a stronger, healthier individual. The fact that you are researching how to help someone with an eating disorder is already the right first step. Reading this right now shows you are trying to help them, and are just unsure what that looks like. Do your best to be there for them, ask them what they need, gain a new perspective, show empathy, and do not be judgmental or make assumptions.
If you believe therapy would be beneficial for your friend, we are here to help. Our team of licensed psychologists specialize in eating disorders and have years of experience in the field. Being close to someone who has an eating disorder can be difficult not only for them, but also for you. We are here to support you as well. Schedule a free consultation today at https://bestwithinyou.com/. We work with clients in Atlanta, Georgia and throughout the United States.
Support resources and links
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
Eating Disorder Helpline – Text or call: (800) 931-2237
This article was written by Rumi Petrova & Dr. Rebecca Leslie