Supporting someone with an eating disorder

Caring for a family member or friend with an eating disorder can be hard. You might find yourself not knowing when, whether, or how to mention your concerns. You might feel very worried about their wellbeing, which can in turn take its toll on you.

Try to pick your moments with conversations of a potentially challenging or sensitive nature, choosing times where both you and your loved one are feeling relatively calm, undistracted, and more likely to be able to speak freely is usually best.

You could ask what support your loved one needs from you, about anything they find to be unhelpful, and what sort of future conversations together they would like. Let them know that you care about them, and try to check in on how they are doing on a regular basis.

This post answers a few common concerns of those caring for people with eating problems.

Should I mention concerns about my loved one’s eating?

Generally, yes. If you’ve noticed changes to your loved ones eating it’s usually a good idea to bring this up. Give some thought to when and where the best place and time to bring it up might be. When will your loved one be most receptive to hearing your concerns? Ask how your loved one is feeling about food, and about life in general. Ask how you can be most helpful.

Should I mention concerns about my loved one’s weight loss?

If your loved one appears to have become underweight (or to have lost weight rapidly) it’s generally a good idea to find the right time to share your concerns. Again trying to take the bigger picture, including how the person is feeling (about weight, and life in general) into account. They may need to see their GP for physical investigations. Weight loss can be alarming. However, try to resist making regular comments about weight and shape outside of supportive conversations, and offering assistance to seek medical attention.

How should I talk about weight in recovery?

While you are likely to feel relieved to see signs of weight restoration, your loved one may have mixed feelings about this. Recognise that while weight restoration is a vital part of recovery (for those who have become underweight), your loved one may still be in the process of adjusting to this. Therefore praise and comments about this may be unwelcome. If you do find yourself needing to have discussions about weight restoration, most people seem to find the terms weight restoration or regain preferable to weight gain.

Eating disorders are about much more than weight (and plenty of people struggle with eating disorders without ever becoming underweight). So don’t assume that looking healthier always neatly correlates with feeling better or being recovered. It is likely that your loved one is experiencing both moments of challenge and success and it can be helpful to enquire about both sides of their recovery.

How else can I support eating disorder recovery?

If you are concerned about weight loss or vomiting, support your loved one to see their GP. Encourage your loved one to access specialist help (either by GP referral to a specialist service, or by helping them to find a suitable privately funded therapist). Try to keep discussions about the eating problem in the open, but understand that your loved one may not want to talk about it all of the time.

Eating disorders can have a way of robbing people of their personality and important areas of life. Reclaiming life is often part of recovery. Try to maintain your interest in the person outside of the eating disorder (e.g., their values, interests, hobbies, hopes, and needs), and make time for fun or enjoyable ways of connecting. Aim find the middle ground where you can provide ongoing support, without the eating disorder itself becoming the long-term sole focus to your relationship.

If possible, try to role model a healthy attitude towards food, bodies, and exercise. Avoid dieting; making value judgments about food (as ‘good vs bad’ or ‘healthy vs unhealthy’) or body shape / weight / size; and exercise regimes.

This can all be incredibly hard. It’s important that you also get support, whether from friends and family, or external organisations. The better supported that you are, the better position you will be in to help.

Where can I get more information and support for myself?

The eating disorder charity B-EAT have lots of helpful advise for family or friends who are worried about someone with an eating disorder they also provide their own tips for carer support.

B-EAT’s support line can be called on 0808 801 0677.

Those in Bristol can access the Bristol Eating Disorder Peer Support Group (this is open to carers on the second Tuesday of each month).

Those in Somerset or Wessex can access ‘SWEDA’s counselling for carers.

If you are in a different part of the UK, you may be able to find local carer support by searching your local Mind website.

If your loved on is under the care of a specialist service, they may offer support for carers. They may invite you join them for part of some therapy sessions – depending on the treatment modality, the therapist or service provider, and their wishes.

Your role in treatment will vary depending upon the treatment modality (as explained here by B-EAT), your loved ones needs and wishes, and the therapist or service provider. Nevertheless, understanding a bit about the common tasks of recovery can be helpful. The book: Beating Your Eating Disorder: A Cognitive-Behavioral Self-Help Guide for Adult Sufferers and their Carers provides useful information if your loved one is having (or going to have) CBT.

Published by Charlotte Rose

Cognitive behavioural therapist and supervisor

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