Helping an Adult

People can, and do, recover from eating disorders, but professional help is often required. Unfortunately, the longer symptoms are denied or ignored, the more difficult recovery tends to be. If someone you know suffers from a possible eating disorder, it's important for them to seek help immediately. Family members and friends can also benefit from information and support. 

You may find it difficult and stressful to approach someone you care about who has an eating disorder. You may wonder what to say, or be understandably worried about what will happen as a result. Rest assured, however, there are things you can do to offer support. 

Tips for Friends and Family

  • Be Patient

    When you approach the individual for the first time, do not be surprised if they reject your expression of concern. They may react with anger or denial. For many folks, having an eating disorder corresponds with experiencing shame and pain. It's also important not to rush the person, and instead recognize that it will take time for the person to make changes.

    Be Informed

    It's important to understand that an eating disorder is a complex mental and physical illness that may also be a coping strategy for the individual. Remember: eating disorders are not about food or vanity! You may want to share what you have learnt with your family member or friend. You can also call the helpline or chat with us online for support and direction to relevant resources in your area. 

    Whether they act on it immediately or need more time to think is their decision to make. Learning about eating disorders, the warning signs, and symptoms can help you better understand how to help them as well as what resources are available for their particular illness. 

    Be Compassionate

    Eating disorders are complex issues, and food and weight concerns could be symptoms of a deeper problem. It's important to understand that eating disorders are not a choice; the person would prefer to have healthier coping mechanisms and is doing the best they can at the moment. Show compassion for the pain and confusion that the individual is experiencing.

    Be Encouraging

    Encourage the person to see themselves as more than their eating disorder. Do this by talking about other aspects of your lives, and of life more generally. Affirm their strengths and interests that are unrelated to food or physical appearance. 

    Be Non-Judgemental

    It's important to express your own needs in the relationship without blaming or shaming the other person. Support them by validating the healthy changes that the person does make, however small they may seem. Remember that in the case of an adult with an eating disorder, decisions about when and how to get help, and what kind, are theirs to make. 

Conversation Guide

  • Focus on feelings and relationships, not on weight and food

    • Tell them you are concerned about their health, but respect their privacy.
    • Do not comment on how they look. The person is already very aware of their body. Even if you are trying to compliment them, comments about weight or appearance tend to be unhelpful and may reinforce their distorted self-perception. Try to be positive and supportive. Find neutral, comfortable places and times to discuss the issues.
    • Try to focus on the main reasons you are concerned. Try not to be negative.

    Example One:

    • Instead of saying, "Why are you doing this to me?"
    • Say, "I am concerned about you. How can I help?”

    Example Two:

    • Instead of saying, "You could stop this if you wanted to."
    • Say, "I know how hard it is for you. Let's talk about how we can try to make things better."

    Find ways to keep calm, focused, and respectful during difficult conversations

    • Set caring and reasonable limits. Be firm and consistent. For example, know how you will respond if the affected person wants to skip meals or eat alone, or if they get angry if someone eats their "special" food.
    • Avoid power struggles about eating. Do not demand that they change. Do not criticize their eating habits. Trying to trick or force them to eat can make things worse and be damaging to relationships.
    • Examine your own attitudes about food, weight, body image and body size. Think about the way you personally are affected by body-image pressures, and be mindful of the ways you discuss your body and food in front of the affected person.
    • Make sure you do not convey fat prejudice, or reinforce their desire to be thin. If they say they feel fat or want to lose weight, don't say "You're not fat." Instead, suggest they explore their fears about being fat, and what they think they can achieve by being thin. Encourage them to reflect on how people are pressured to look a certain way, and how this makes us feel bad about ourselves.
    • Acknowledge the affected person's rights and feelings.
    Guide for Family
  • Guide for Friends

Take Care of Yourself

  • Seeing someone you love struggling with an eating disorder might make you feel very scared, angry, frustrated or helpless. Be careful not to blame them. Try to understand that eating disorders are not a choice but a biologically-influenced mental illness. Your loved one may know that their condition is upsetting other people, but this may not make it any easier for them to change their behaviours. 

    Do not take on the role of a therapist. Do only what you feel capable of. Try to get support for yourself. You need to take care of yourself while dealing with your loved one and might benefit from speaking to a counsellor or health professional. You can locate support groups and counselling options for family members and friends of people with eating disorders using NEDIC's Service Provider Directory. Make sure you continue to take care of your own physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Remember that they can only get better at their own pace. You can be supportive and gently give them information. You can help them to see and consider alternatives. You cannot make them get better. 

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