Eating disorders are about more than just food. They are severe mental and physical conditions that can lead to emotional distress and harmful health issues. Fortunately, recovery is possible, and many resources exist to help those affected by eating disorders.
Support for Eating Disorder Recovery
It can be very difficult for parents, siblings, partners, friends and co-workers to watch their loved one struggle with an eating disorder. These groups must also learn how to cope with the stresses their loved one faces.
It is normal for parents, friends and significant others to feel pain, worry and sadness while watching someone they care about suffer. Parents may experience sleepless nights wondering how to help their child. In some cases, friends or siblings may even start to adopt harmful eating behaviors of their own.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website has a comprehensive list of common symptoms and warning signs of an eating disorder.
If someone you love is displaying these symptoms, they may have an eating disorder. You can also call NEDA’s confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237 to learn more about your options.
If your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder or going through recovery, there are many resources available to help you navigate and manage your own distress. As you aim to cope with your own worry, you may be a stronger support and resource for your loved one.
Here are some useful tips to follow as you provide and seek support.
- Be open and willing to listen your loved one’s struggles and share your own fears
- Be patient as your loved one works through recovery, but talk to them if you see their physical or mental state worsen
- Understand that it is not solely your responsibility to treat your loved one’s eating disorder
- Consistently remind your loved one that you support them
- Recognize your own limits if you have experienced or are susceptible to harmful eating behaviors
- Remind your loved one that their feelings and emotions are valid; do not offer “common-sense” solutions (i.e. telling your loved one to “just eat”)
Support for Parents
It can be extremely painful to watch your child suffer from an eating disorder. You may want to take on a bigger role in their treatment and recovery. That’s why it’s essential to monitor your own sadness and anxiety while they work toward recovery. As you learn to cope with your own distress, you will be better equipped to support your child.
If your child has an eating disorder, there are multiple ways you can support their recovery while still maintaining your own well-being. Taking your child to appointments with their primary care physician, therapist and nutritionist can be essential to their recovery, especially they are not old enough to seek these appointments themselves.
Other ways to support your child include helping them prepare meals according to a prescribed meal plan (if applicable), listening to and validating their fears and encouraging their progress.
As a parent, you may feel responsible for ensuring the success of your child’s recovery. It is important to remember that while you can support and encourage your child, it is their decisions and actions that lead to recovery.
Support for Siblings
If your sibling is struggling with an eating disorder, it is possible that all the attention in your household has gone to them and their recovery. You may also overhear painful conversations and arguments between your loved ones throughout the process. These stressful living conditions may cause you to feel left out or experience your own worry and frustration.
Keep in mind that these feelings are normal and understandable. If you feel left out or invisible, ask to spend quality time with your parents, friends or other family members. It may be helpful to spend time in a space that is not overshadowed by the eating disorder.
Watching your sibling work through their eating disorder may also bring up negative thoughts and feelings about your own eating behaviors or weight. If so, look for a trusted person with whom you can share those emotions.
Support for Partners
Watching your significant other or spouse suffer from an eating disorder can be traumatic. Seeing them neglect proper care for themselves may cause you to take matters into your own hands. You may try to help through feeding them, monitoring them while eating or encouraging them to seek professional care.
Unfortunately, your loved one may find these actions intrusive or pushy. You want to see your partner in a healthy physical and mental state. However, people battling eating disorders need empathy rather than control or supervision.
Depending on the length and strength of your relationship, your partner may be ashamed about their eating disorder and hesitant to talk about it. If your partner is secretive about their behaviors, remind them that you will be there to listen when they’re ready. Lasting recovery is about more than just managing symptoms. You cannot “fix” your partner’s eating disorder—it can only be treated when they are ready to seek out professional care.
Support for Friends
If you see your friend has symptoms of an eating disorder, you may feel eager to jump in, ask them about it and try to help. On the other hand, you may become very fearful and not know how to cope with the situation. However you feel, it is important to address your friend in a loving and understanding way.
If your affected friend is not willing to talk about their eating disorder, do not push them. Remind them that you are there if they ever want to talk. If your friend has confided in you about their eating disorder, it is important that you maintain their trust by not sharing their struggles with anyone else. If you fear their health is in critical condition, reach out to a trusted adult (i.e. your friend’s parents) for guidance.
Talk around food, dieting and weight is prevalent in today’s society. If your friend has an eating disorder or is displaying harmful eating patterns, try to refrain from discussing food or weight around them.
Support for Co-workers
You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. If your co-worker does have an ED, it is likely they’ll try to keep it out of the workplace. Do not make assumptions or judgements about a co-worker that you suspect has an eating disorder.
If you think one of your co-workers may have an eating disorder, contact your human resources (HR) department or call NEDA’s confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for more information.