People with eating disorders are not the only ones who suffer. The struggle becomes a family affair. While there are things families should try to avoid doing or saying, there are just as many things that they can do to help not only their loved one, but also themselves.
The Long Road to Recovery
Learning that someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder is never easy. The initial diagnosis may come as a shock. But, for some people and their loved ones, what comes after the diagnosis can be even harder. Successful treatment of eating disorders is a long process which can take many years, and can involve irregular progress and setbacks.
Understandably, though, there will be times when your patience is tested, like when your loved one returns to destructive behaviors. But, there are steps you can take.
Ways to Educate Yourself
Perhaps the first step in helping your loved one recover is educating yourself about eating disorders. People often assume that eating disorders are about food and weight, but that is not true. There are many underlying issues.
To deal with those issues, your loved one will need to work with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, has shown to be useful for treating people with eating disorders. Involving the whole family in therapy is another effective strategy to help with the recovery process.
In addition, you can attend educational meetings to find out more about eating disorders, including 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.
The best thing that you can do is provide support. Here are some actions you can take to make things easier for you and your loved one:
- Ask how you can be supportive. Talking about how you can help is the healthiest way of dealing with things.
- Do not let your relationship focus solely on the person with the eating disorder. You are an important person, too. When you are talking about your loved one's day, for instance, share information about your day too.
- Try to keep the attention off of food. Whether you are at a family reunion or the dinner table, take the focus off of food by talking about the day's events. You could also go for a walk or play board games.
- Legalize all foods. Do not cater to the belief that foods are good or bad. Offer to serve something your loved one will eat if you are hosting the event.
- 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 and live. If they feel that specific family changes would support their recovery, bring this topic up during a family therapy session.
- Be a good role model. Think about your own eating habits and attitude towards weight loss. If you admire people who are extremely slender, exercise excessively, or are constantly dieting, your loved one may get confused about what is a healthy lifestyle.
- Have a strategy for responding to comments. If you are also working with a therapist, you can work on developing effective strategies for responding to your loved one. For example, if the person says, "I feel fat," you may want to respond by asking about what kinds of fears surround the idea of being fat, such as fear of being rejected by peers.
- Do not ignore destructive behaviors. When you see your loved one engaging in behaviors like binging, purging, or not eating at all, show that you care. Ask if anything is going on or offer to talk. Even if you are feeling angry and frustrated, remember that your loved one needs you to be kind and respectful.
- Approach your loved one's therapist with your concerns. While a therapist cannot reveal confidential information, you can still offer up your concerns.
- Remember that there is no right or wrong reaction. Don't worry about how your loved one will interpret your response to the situation. Be yourself and follow your instincts.
With care from doctors and therapists and support from friends and family, it is possible for your loved one to 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 May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 7/1/2015