A Family's Guide to Tackling Eating Disorders

feet on a scale People with eating disorders are not the only ones who suffer. The struggle affects the whole family. There are things family members should try to avoid doing or saying, but there are also things that they can do to help their loved ones and themselves.

The Long Road to Recovery

Learning that someone you love has an eating disorder is not easy. It may come as a shock. What comes after the diagnosis can be even harder.

Do not give up hope. People who have eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia can recover with treatment and patience. But it will likely be a long process that can take years and involve progress as well as setbacks.

There will be times when your patience is tested, like when your loved one returns to harmful eating patterns. But there are things you can do.

Learn About Eating Disorders

The first step to help your loved one is to educate yourself about eating disorders. Many people think that eating disorders are about food and weight, but that is not true. There are many underlying issues.

Your loved one will need to work with a therapist to deal with these issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a person focus on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around eating. Family therapy is another method to help with the recovery.

There are also talks you can attend to learn more about eating disorders, such as the possible causes, related health problems, and treatments. If your loved one is getting special care at a treatment center, the staff may offer classes for family members. Joining a support group may also be helpful.

Recovery Tips

The best thing that you can do is provide support. Here are some tips that may help:

  1. Ask how you can be supportive.
  2. Do not let your relationship focus on the person with the eating disorder. You are an important, too. Talk about things going on in your life when you talk to one another.
  3. Keep the attention off of food. Take the focus off of food by talking about the day's events. You can also go for a walk or play board games.
  4. Have a variety of foods available. Foods are not good or bad. Offer to make things your loved one will eat when you host a meal.
  5. Try to keep the family's regular eating patterns. Your loved one's eating disorder should not control how other members of the family eat.
  6. Be a good role model. Think about your own eating habits and attitude towards weight loss. Your actions may confuse your loved one about what is a healthy lifestyle.
  7. Plan ahead on how you will respond to comments. Work on how you can respond to your loved one. A therapist can help. For example, if the person says, "I feel fat," you can ask about what kinds of fears they have around the idea of being fat, such as fear of being rejected by peers.
  8. Do not ignore harmful behaviors. Show that you care when you see your loved doing things that are not healthy, such as binging, purging, or not eating at all. Ask if anything is going on or offer to talk. Keep in mind that your loved one needs you to be kind and respectful and not angry or frustrated.
  9. Share your concerns with your loved one's therapist. While a therapist cannot reveal confidential information, you can still offer up your concerns.
  10. There is no right or wrong reaction. Do not worry about how your loved one will interpret your response to the situation. Be yourself and follow your instincts.

With medical care and support from family and friends, your loved one can recover from an eating disorder.


National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

National Eating Disorders Association


Canadian Mental Health Association

Canadian Psychiatric Association


Eating disorders. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/complete-index.shtml. Updated 2014. Accessed May 30, 2017.

Help for family and friends. National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Available at: http://nedic.ca/give-get-help/help-friends-family. Accessed May 30, 2017.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board  Last Updated: 6/21/2021