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How to Help a Loved One Who Is Struggling with an Eating Disorder

When someone you love is battling an eating disorder, the effects of the disorder can have an impact on everyone in the family. It can be hard to know how to support someone who is going through treatment for an eating disorder, because these illnesses are often misunderstood and are still highly stigmatized. But you can be a source of immense support for your loved one if they are struggling with disordered eating.

Gaining a better understanding of the eating disorder your loved one is suffering from is one of the first steps to creating a strong support system for your friend or family member. One common characteristic of disordered eating that your loved one might display is asking you questions about their appearance, their weight, or the foods they eat. In asking these questions, the eating disorder they are struggling with is causing them to look for reasons to blame loved ones for their compulsion to engage in disordered eating. Eating disorders grow in the dark, and these disorders look for any reason to push away loved ones, isolating your friend or family member from the people closest to them at a time when they need them the most.

When talking to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, try to avoid comments about people’s bodies, including their shapes, weights, sizes, and fitness levels. This can be difficult in a culture where we are taught that it’s a compliment to comment on others’ appearances. But even well-meaning comments can be very triggering to someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. This means that you should try not to comment on your own body, shape, weight, size, and fitness or that of other people, such as friends, neighbors, your kids, or strangers.

Instead of talking about people’s bodies, try to talk about their personalities or behaviors instead. You can say things like, “You seem so happy these days!” or “I love watching the way you play with our children; you light up around them” or “I am worried about how you are feeling right now. I’ve noticed that you’ve been spending more time alone.” Make sure you do not say things like, “You look so healthy!” or “You’ve gained/lost weight; I’m proud of you.”

Recovery takes time, so remember to be patient. There is no quick solution to an eating disorder, because there is much more to living with an eating disorder than disordered eating behaviors. Your friend or family member needs your love and encouragement, so try to avoid making mealtime a battle zone or policing your loved one’s eating habits. Also, try not to spend time blaming or demanding that their disordered behaviors stop.

It is important to find ways to be supportive without being your loved one’s therapist or dietitian. Your friend or family member should be working with mental health professionals in a safe, confidential treatment environment where they receive evidence-based care. They need you to support them in a way that professionals cannot.

If you’re unsure how to help someone in your own family who is struggling with an eating disorder, family therapy can be very helpful. Participating in family therapy provides you with an opportunity to discuss how to best support your loved one, and these sessions can help you learn about the specific eating disorder your loved one is suffering from. Family therapy also offers a safe space to talk about your experiences with this illness, allowing you to process your emotions and to start to heal from any damage you may have experienced from your loved one’s behaviors.

Carolina House offers families a variety of resources to help them support their loved ones as they embark on their eating disorder recovery journeys. We host Family Day every six weeks to provide family members with the tools and education they need to help their loved ones succeed in treatment at every level of care. Contact us today for our Family Day schedule and to discover the many other resources we provide families with at our eating disorder treatment facility.

About Katharine Augustine, MA, LMFT

Katharine Augustine is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) who has considerable experience working with individuals, couples, and families in a variety of treatment settings.

Katharine earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Pfeiffer University. She has completed additional training in parenting skills development, motivational interviewing, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

She completed her clinical internship with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, which is part of the Duke Cancer Institute. During that internship, she worked with adults who were receiving treatment for cancer, as well as with their family members.

After completing her graduate degree, Katharine worked in community mental health, where she provided clinical assessments, outpatient care, and intensive in-home services to individuals and families who were experiencing a variety of challenges.

As a marriage and family therapist, Katharine believes wholeheartedly that families and relationships are essential contexts for understanding behavior and powerful mechanisms of change. In her free time, Katharine loves to travel, watch movies, and spend time with her family.

View all posts by Katharine Augustine, MA, LMFT