Help for Friends & Family
People can, and do, recover from eating disorders, but professional help is almost always required. Unfortunately, the longer symptoms are denied or ignored, the more difficult recovery will be. If you or someone you know suffers from a possible eating disorder, it's important to seek help immediately. Family members and friends can also benefit from information and help.
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 worried about what will happen as a result. These are legitimate fears. Rest assured, however, there are things you can do to offer support.
When you approach the individual for the first time, do not be surprised if they reject your expression of concern. They may even react with anger and denial. There is a lot of shame and pain that goes along with having an eating disorder. It's also important not to rush the person, and instead recognize that it will take time for the person to make changes.
It's important to understand that an eating disorder is a coping strategy that the individual uses to deal with deeper problems - problems may be too painful or difficult to deal with directly. Remember: Eating disorders are not simply about not eating or vanity! This website can provide you with additional information that is worth learning, information you may also want to offer to your family member or friend. Whether they act on it immediately or need more time to think is their decision to make.
Eating disorders are a complex problem, and food and weight issues are only the symptoms of a deeper problem. It's important to understand that 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.
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.
It's important to express your own needs in the relationship, without blaming or shaming the other person. Remember that the individual with the eating disorder will have to decide on when and how to get help, and what kind. Support them by validating the healthy changes that the person does makes, however small they may be.
- Focus on feelings and relationships, not on weight and food.
- Tell them you are concerned about their health, but respect their privacy. Eating disorders are often a cry for help, and the individual will appreciate knowing that you are concerned.
- Do not comment on how they look. The person is already too aware of their body. Even if you are trying to compliment them, comments about weight or appearance only reinforce their obsession with body image and weight.
- Try to be positive. Find neutral, comfortable places and times to discuss the issues. Try to focus on the main reasons you are concerned or in conflict. Try not to be negative.
Instead of saying, "Why are you doing this to me?"
Say, "This is difficult for both of us, so let's try to discuss it."
Instead of saying, "You could control/stop this if you wanted to."
Say, "I know how hard it is for you. Let's talk about how we can both find ways 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 when the affected person wants to skip meals or eat alone, or when 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. People with eating disorders are trying to be in control. They don't feel in control of their life. Trying to trick or force them to eat can make things worse.
- 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 share these with the person.
- Make sure you do not convey any 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.
- When the individual with an eating disorder is a child or minor, more direct action and guidance may be required. However, always respect the rights and feelings of the individual.
Take Care of Yourself
Seeing someone you love struggling with an eating disorder might make you feel very scared, angry, frustrated and helpless. However, be careful not to blame them. Try to understand that eating problems are a coping strategy for dealing with painful emotions or experiences. The person with an eating disorder may know that their condition is upsetting other people, but may not be able to change.
- Do not take on the role of a therapist. Do only what you feel capable of. Try to get some support for yourself. You need to take care of yourself while dealing with your friend/family member and might want to speak to a counsellor or health professional.
- Make sure you continue to take care of you 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. Consult with professionals when a child is concerned.
Starting Feb 2012: University & College Support Groups On Campus
Students will be able to join an eating disorder support group at their local campus! As part of a Sheena’s Place pilot project, Ryerson University, Uof T, York University, and Seneca College are offering 8 week support groups to students of all ages. This project is made possible by the generous support of the Toronto Community Foundation.
Please contact the centres listed below for more information:
Ryerson University: Centre for Student Development and Counselling: 416-979-5195
York University: Counselling and Disability Services: 416-736-5297
Seneca College: Counselling and Disability Office of Seneca College: 416-491-5050, ext. 22900
University of Toronto: Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS): 416-978-8070
Also From Sheena's Place: E-Learning Tutorials
A Guide for Parents & Supportive Others, it includes modules for parents and supportive others of young adults over 18 and for understanding the stages of change. These e-learning modules allow you to learn at your own pace and bookmark where you left off, so you can resume your e-learning session later on. Visit www.sheena'splace.org to begin.