“I Think My Friend Has an Eating Disorder….How Can I Help?”
by Erika Hirsch, MFT, ATR – August 8, 2011
Most of us know someone who has suffered with an Eating Disorder. It can be a friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, roommate, or a grown child who is now out on his/her own. Almost everyone knows someone who has been through it, but most loved ones struggle with knowing how to help. Eating Disorders are daunting and scary for everyone involved. They are incredibly difficult disorders to go through personally, and as the friend of someone with an Eating Disorder, it can be frustrating just watching it happen and not knowing how to help. There are things that you can do.
Ways to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder
1. It’s not about the food. Approach your friend, ask them what’s on their mind, and talk about what kinds of things are causing them stress. Are they having a hard time dealing with family or relationship stress? Do they feel pressure at work or at school? Are they being too hard on themselves? Did something stressful or traumatic happen recently? Listen to them and don’t worry about giving the “right” advice or “fixing” it.
2. Let your friend know that you are concerned about what you are seeing. These are the basic categories of Eating Disorder behaviors that most loved ones notice and express concern about:
- Binge behaviors – eating large quantities of food, almost in a “zombie-like” state.
- Restricting behaviors – refusing food, having a lot of fears about food, not eating or only eating “safe” foods.
- Purging behaviors – excessive or obsessive exercising, throwing up after meals, abusing laxatives.
- Fear of weight gain – talking daily or often about weight and weight loss, weighing themselves often, emotions or self worth are determined by the number on the scale, weight gain is something they are intensely afraid of.
Be kind, compassionate, and non-judgmental when you talk about these behaviors. Most of the time the person is hesitant to talk about their secret eating disorder behaviors and it’s very hard to be confronted about them. They might not be ready to have it all out in the open.
3. Consider your approach. Tough love is not going to help. “Forcing” someone to eat with you or saying, “snap out of it and just eat”, will not help. It’s more appropriate to try to help this person in a way they’re comfortable with. For example, they might ask you, “Can you stay with me after I eat lunch and distract me so I won’t go throw up?”. However, it’s best not to try to push this approach onto them. Let them guide you in how to provide support. Also, keep in mind that unless you’ve had an Eating Disorder yourself, there are limits to what you will understand about what they are going through. Let your friend explain it to you, and listen without judgment. For example, if a friend confides in you and tells you that he/she throws up after meals, replying with, “Wow, that’s gross! I don’t know how you can do that, I hate throwing up”, will most likely cause your friend to feel that it is unsafe to talk about the Eating Disorder.
4. Encourage your friend to get professional help. Seeing a therapist who has experience in Eating Disorder treatment is vitally important. If your friend refuses to see a therapist, then please encourage him/her to see a doctor to get a check-up. There might be serious medical complications from the Eating Disorder that the person is not aware of, and these complications can be life threatening. If your friend passes out or seems like they are in some kind of state of medical emergency, do not hesitate to call 911 immediately.
5. You cannot expect yourself be your friend’s therapist or doctor. Be a concerned and compassionate friend, be there to listen, but you are not the person who is responsible for “fixing” your friend’s Eating Disorder, or watching him/her to make sure they are eating. Becoming the Food Police will not be helpful for your friend or yourself. If you are a parent with an adult child who has an eating disorder, collaborate as much as you can with your child, ask them what kind of support they need from you. Parents should also not be their child’s therapist or doctor. Kindness, an empathetic ear, and a non-judgmental approach will go a long way in helping a loved one get through eating disorder recovery.
Finally, my last tip for loved ones is to take care of your own emotional well-being. Consider seeking out therapy for yourself, especially if you have an adult child, spouse, or very close friend or family member with an eating disorder. Therapy can help you gain insight into what your loved one is going through and can help you in managing the emotions, worries and fears that you have for their well-being. Things can get better with the right kind of support, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Erika Hirsch, MFT, ATR (MFC #45824) is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in Eating Disorder treatment. www.erikahirschpsychotherapy.com
This is a brief list of tips for loved ones and it is not a replacement for individualized treatment or a consultation with a licensed mental health professional.