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10 Ways You Can Support a Loved One With an Eating Disorder

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I’ve struggled with an eating disorder since I was 13-years-old, but the signs and symptoms may have been there earlier. I finally started recovery just over a year ago and it has been one of the hardest years of my life. There were many times I wanted to give up, but the people around me helped and supported me.

Supporting someone with an eating disorder is difficult. There may be times they hate you and other times they love you. They may pull away and not talk to you for weeks or be in constant need of support. Everyone goes through recovery differently and everyone needs support differently, but here are 10 things you can do to support someone in recovery:

1. Let them know you are there for them.

But only if you can be. It is great you want to support your friend or family member, but don’t say you’re here for them unless you truly can be. Instead, explain your situation. You can even say, “I am here for you, but I also need to make sure to take care of myself.” Just because you can’t help all the time doesn’t mean you don’t love them. Your loved one will understand and wants you to take care of yourself.

2. Make sure to communicate.

Let them know it is OK to cry or feel negative emotions. Let them know you will not shame them or dismiss them for what is going on. Be open about what is going on with you and if you are worried about them, tell them. If you want to help but don’t know how, ask them. The more you talk with your loved one, the better!

3. Use different ways to show your support.

You may not know what to say but you can do something like give them a hug. There are five love languages including: gifts, quality time, acts of service, physical touch and words of affirmation. If you can’t think of what to say, you could ask if they want to watch a movie with you, if they’d like a hug or if they’d like help with chores around the house. There are so many ways you can help and they don’t always need words.

I remember one time my father and I were in the car driving home from treatment and he was trying his best to find something to say, but he couldn’t figure out how to help. we stopped to pick up some medicine and I stayed in the car. When he came back, he held a tiny teddy bear holding a rose. It was so meaningful to me because I knew even though he didn’t know what he could say to help, he loved and supported me. So again, not everything has to be words or some grand gesture, it’s the little things you do that remind us you love us every day, not just on our “good” days.

4. Examine your behaviors.

You may not know your actions can be triggering because sometimes we are too scared to point it out to you. If you are supporting someone in recovery but always talking about fad diets, losing weight or “good” and “bad” foods, you are likely not helping your loved one’s eating disorder recovery. Please know you don’t need to change everything about your life, but you do need to be careful with what you say and do around your loved one with an eating disorder.

A good way to think about is as if someone recovering from an addiction had to listen to his friends talk about how much they liked the substance he was abstaining from. Though it may not seem like a big deal to you to say a food is “bad,” it is a big deal to someone in eating disorder recovery because it can make them think their treatment team is lying to them, causing them to lose trust in the system.

5. Redirect conversation away from food.

Instead of talking about how they look or what they are eating, make it a two way conversation and talk about yourself. Tell them something funny that happened at work or school and let them ask you some questions. Allow them some control of the conversation, because your loved one cares about what is going on in your life just as much as you care about what is going on in theirs.

6. Forgive yourself for mistakes you may make.

Everyone makes mistakes, so please don’t blame yourself for not noticing or doing anything about it. Eating disorders are very secretive and you shouldn’t blame yourself for not knowing something you couldn’t have known. Let the past go because you cannot change past mistakes. Know you did your best and this is what matters. Think about the present and the future and yes, talk about and process through what happened in the past. Explain, work through it, but then let it go. Focusing on the present and making goals for the future will help your loved one’s recovery.

7. Understand food is a symptom, not the cause.

Eating disorders are usually about control and in treatment, it may feel like a loss of control. Give your loved one ways to gain back their control. If you are a parent, give your child a way to have some control, let them choose what music to listen to on the radio or which spot they get to sit in when in the living room. These small things will give them a little bit of control in their life so they will not feel the need to control their eating as much.

8. In families, everyone needs to be involved.

Have you ever heard the expression “when a family member gets cancer you all get cancer”? This is the case with eating disorder recovery, too. When a family is a loved one’s primary support system, it is necessary to change the family dynamic. Many of the points I have made above must be done by every person in the family. It is important to remember even though one person is sick, it is vital everyone else in the family takes care of themselves too.

9. Encourage your loved one to take responsibility for their recovery.

In the beginning, it is difficult and I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I originally started recovery not for myself, but for my friends and family. But as I continued, I realized I was worth recovery. Please understand your loved one will hit this moment in their own time. Allow them to own their recovery and make it theirs. Recovery is not easy and your loved one will struggle, but if they claim their recovery, it will be easier for them to get up when they fall.

10. Encourage your loved one to continue learning to love himself or herself.

My therapist told me once we need to develop a habit of not judging ourselves. When she said this, I thought she was crazy. I remember saying, “I can’t, I don’t deserve love.” What she replied to me gave me a whole new perspective. She said, “would you tell your 5-year-old self what you tell yourself now? Would you turn to your best friend and scream these horrible things at them? Would you treat a puppy the way you treat yourself? If not, you don’t deserve to be treated that way.” Your loved one doesn’t have to start out by saying “I’m fabulous” if they don’t believe it. For example, I started out with “I deserve space,” “I am not terrible” and “I do not have to hurt myself.” Remember there are many paths to recovery and you should encourage your loved one on the path that works best for them.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via Archv.

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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