How to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Guest Post by Faith Badders

 Photo by Chansereypich Seng on Unsplash

Photo by Chansereypich Seng on Unsplash

Over time I have learned that my mind can create something beautiful or something dark and destructive. When I was young, I was a pretty content girl and passionate about living my life to its fullest even when times were tough. As I entered my senior year, I started to evaluate my life and noticed how average I was as a student, dancer, tennis player, daughter, sister, and friend. I felt like everything I once was content with no longer measured up to what my mind was telling me I should have become. At the same time, I was dealing with food sensitivities, recovering from a breakup, and embracing the life changes that would come after graduating high school. 

Slowly but surely I started to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. I was hypersensitive to my emotions and how I felt about food; it was if my gut was an irritable monster that wanted to avoid discomfort at all costs. I never restricted and developed anorexia, but I did eliminate a lot of foods out of my diet and obsessively thought about when and what I would eat. I became anxious and even annoyed around food and how much it consumed my thought life. After six months of dealing with this unhealthy relationship with food, I dropped to an unhealthy weight and was not capable of gaining weight back on my own. 

After graduation, I planned on going on a mission trip to a third world country. However, my parents did not let me go because they did not want me losing any more weight. My parents saying no turned my life around, and I am greatly appreciative of their decision. Instead of going on the mission trip, I decided to admit that I was powerless and needed to surrender control. I spent my entire summer at a treatment center and embraced a journey to receive complete healing. Talk about a humbling yet powerful experience. 

Treatment was hard, pushed me to my edge, and grew me as a person. Every day I had to decide to work hard, rest in grace, and receive the help and support needed to get through the program. Even though my family and friends did not always know how to address the situation, they were very supportive and loved me throughout the process. I am very thankful for the people in my life who love me and support me, but I have learned to acknowledge that I, myself, am ultimately responsible for my recovery and maintaining a healthy mind, spirit, and body.

 Photo by Marcelo Matarazzo on Unsplash

Photo by Marcelo Matarazzo on Unsplash

Every person’s journey with food is different, but here are a few suggestions on how to walk alongside them in the midst of an eating disorder.

Have conversations about it—and don’t forget to listen.

It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations, especially when it comes to a sensitive topic like an eating disorder. But broaching the topic opens the door for dialogue and the road to recovery. Ask questions and listen, and most of all, be patient and supportive. Validating feelings, asking questions, and withholding judgment are vital for recovery.

Don’t give quick fixes.

Even though comments like “Just eat more” or “Just look in the mirror—you look great” can seem like a natural response, they can do more harm than good. These statements imply eating disorders are casual problems rather than the complex situations they are. If a statement starts with “just,” think twice before saying it out loud. Instead, encourage your loved one and speak truth about their value as a person.

Offer to help look for professional help.

Finding a doctor or making an appointment with a counselor can be intimidating for many people. Offer to look up providers in the area or to take them to an appointment. Receiving compassionate care can help a person understand any diagnoses they may have as well as screen for any related medical problems. Optimally, eating disorders are addressed holistically, with a team of people helping to talk through nutrition, their relationship with food, and healthy coping mechanisms (counseling was my favorite).

Stay away from shaming.

Stay away from focusing on your emotions and blaming an individual for them (i.e., “I’m scared when you don’t eat” or “I feel guilty that you’re not doing well”). Addiitonally, rather than making comments about actions you disagree with (not eating enough, hurting yourself by doing this, etc.), ask about the emotions or motivations behind these actions. Instead, ask questions about topics like what they find stressful in life or what drives their fear of gaining weight.

Learn about eating disorders.

The more you know about eating disorders, the more likely you’ll be able to offer empathy and positive support. Researching will help you understand what kind of treatment your loved one might need, and it will also make you aware of personal challenges or biases you may not be aware of.

Tips for Parents

While these next few are especially useful for parents, we can all implement them in our lives.

Set a positive example.

This goes far beyond what (or how much) you eat. It includes being mindful of your own self-esteem and self-image and speaking positively about yourself and your body. It also includes avoiding criticism about appearance (your own or anyone else’s). In conversation, try focusing on character qualities instead of physical appearance.

Hold your child accountable, but don’t hover.

Instead of acting like the “food police” or trying to force them to eat, set limits. Using natural consequences to their actions instead of “punishments” you prescribe can be much more powerful motivators. For example, when I was in a weakened state, it wasn’t safe for me to go on a trip to Belize, so my parents didn’t allow me to go.

Don’t blame—your child or yourself.

Instead of focusing on the “could have” and “should have” moments in life, look forward and identify action points you can take today. Evaluate what you have learned and how you can incorporate that into you relationship with your child. Instead, continue to provide hope to yourself and your child by focusing on every victory, no matter how small.

Make meals enjoyable.

Eating meals as a family or inviting friends over for dinner can make mealtimes something to look forward to. Having fun with each other instead of talking about the day’s complications or problems can help create a positive atmosphere, which can become associated with food.

Last of all, take care of yourself.

Make sure you have a support system where you can talk about your struggles and the complex emotions around a loved one with an eating disorder. Consider setting aside a regular time when you can process verbally with a friend, family member, or therapist. By practicing self-care, you’re not only ensuring you can parent your child well, but you’re also modeling self-love in a practical way.

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