Family Support Guidelines When Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder
If you have a loved one who is suffering from an eating disorder, life as you knew it has been turned on its head. Eating disorders impact entire families. Every member is bound to struggle with this new reality and how they fit into it.
You will have many questons and moments when you are unsure how you can help your loved one. These guidelines are designed to help you navigate those difficult times so that you can provide support as well as implement the self-care you will need in the days, weeks and months ahead.
There are no quick, easy answers.
If one is to recover, one will need to make some changes in perceptions and behaviors. Other family members may need to make changes too. We encourage, you to take advantage of professional help to make these transitions easier.
Allow yourself to not know all of the answers about how to help.
You are no less of a father, mother, sibling, or partner – you are human. There are individuals, groups, books and other resources to help you gain understanding of eating disorders.
Do all you can to help your loved one get into therapy.
Be supportive and give empathy to your loved one, and firmly insist he or she enter therapy with the goal of healing a very severe illness. If your loved one is over 18 and refuses therapy, consider working with a therapist yourself, with the goal of increasing understanding to continue to support your loved one until he/she is ready for help. A therapist will also help you set healthy boundaries for yourself and also bring insight into how to not enable your loved one to use ED behaviors.
Avoid getting involved in discussions or arguments over weight, food or eating.
If you become concerned about dehydration, weight loss or other issues, call your family therapist, if you have one, or request a session with your loved one and his or her therapist and voice your concerns there.
Understand and acknowledge certain behaviors.
If your loved one is food shopping or cooking for the family, realize he or she might be using this nurturing role to deny his or her own needs for food and kindness. Become active in showing your care.
Learn to take care of yourself!
Do not become a martyr or let yourself or family revolve around the eating disorder. Do not neglect fun, other family members, friends or personal goals due to this problem.
Help build a sense of competence and responsibility.
Allow him or her to take responsibility for the reality of their words, actions, decisions and behaviors.
Increase physical and verbal expression of love in the family.
Be honest about feeling angry, frustrated and powerless. By sharing feelings, all family members grow closer, even though people will feel and think differently about what is happening.
Check to make sure you are hearing each other accurately when discussing subjects and feelings.
Share your concerns with each other and with others in your life, as appropriate. Keeping secrets does not help the situation.
Practice good sense – do not go on diets.
Take an honest look at reasons for dieting and exercise. Are you giving his or her appearance priority his or her health? Are these activities primarily for weight loss? It is hard for the individual dealing with an eating disorder to try to change thoughts about weight loss and the importance of appearance when significant others are reinforcing the importance of weight loss and thinness.
Recognize your loved one for qualities/achievements independent of their appearance.
Sharing what you appreciate about your loved one can support their development of a sense of self that is secure, unique and less subject to changing fads and fashions.
Avoid power struggles over gaining weight or stopping binging or purging.
The eating disorder will always win. Try calling a "cease-fire" and substitute time together in shared activities. Take time to "play" together. This will improve feelings on both sides of the battle and help you develop new ways to relate, rather than relating around food issues.
Do not try to manipulate the eating disordered person.
Avoid statements like, "you are ruining the family" or "just give this up for me." The eating disordered individual is not responsible for your welfare; you are. Each person is responsible for his or her own happiness.
Let your loved one know that you are available for emotional social support.
If you have difficulty doing this, you may want to seek help for yourself in order to learn new ways to develop intimacy with family members. We often reproduce in our relationships with others what we ourselves learned in childhood.
Do not ask, "Are you better?"
This is a loaded question and suggests the eating disordered individual should hurry and get well so everyone would feel better. Judge progress by, "Is he or she more aware of feelings?" - "Is he or she thinking and behaving more realistically?" - And, "Is he or she less critical of himself or herself?" Eating is only a symptom of the underlying concerns.
Realize at best your loved one is probably ambivalent to give up his or her perceived "safe and secure" rituals of disordered eating.
These serve a coping mechanism and it will take time to develop new, trusted patterns.