Friends and family are often key to encouraging loved ones with eating and/or body image issues to seek help. Whether they are unaware that there is a problem, they are afraid or ashamed to seek help, or they are ambivalent about giving up their concerning behaviors, many sufferers find it difficult to seek help. Family and friends can play an important role in identifying worrying symptoms to the sufferer and encouraging them to seek help.
If you are concerned about the eating habits, weight, or body image of someone you care about, we understand that this may be a very difficult and scary time for you. It’s not always easy to discuss eating concerns, especially with someone you are close to. However, you are doing a great thing by looking for more information; many individuals now in recovery from an eating disorder say the support of family and friends was crucial to them getting well.
How to Talk to a Loved One About Eating Concerns
- Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. Read books, articles, and brochures. Know the difference between facts and myths about weight, nutrition, and exercise. Knowing the facts will help you reason with your friend about any inaccurate ideas that may be fueling their disordered eating patterns.
- Rehearse what you want to say. This may help reduce your anxiety and clarify exactly what you want to say. Other people have found writing out their main points helpful.
- Set a private time and place to talk. No one wants to have personal issues dissected in front of a crowd, so make sure you find a time and place where you will have time to discuss your concerns without being rushed or in front of a crowd.
- Be honest. Talk openly and honestly about your concerns with the person who is struggling with eating or body image problems. Avoiding it or ignoring it won’t help!
- Use “I” statements. Focus on behaviors that you have personally observed, such as “I have noticed that you aren’t eating dinner with us anymore,” or “I am worried about how frequently you are going to the gym.” It’s easy to sound accusatory (“You’re not eating! You’re exercising too much!”), which can cause a person to feel defensive. Instead, stick to pointing out what you’ve observed. If you can, also point out behaviors not related to eating and weight, which may be easier for the person to see and accept.
- Stick to the facts. Raising concerns about a potential eating disorder can bring up lots of emotions, and it’s important not to let those run the show. Instead, talk about behaviors and changes you have observed and calmly point out why you are concerned (“I have seen you run to the bathroom after meals and feel worried you might be making yourself throw up.”).
- Be caring, but be firm. Caring about your friend does not mean being manipulated by them. Your friend must be responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. Avoid making rules, promises, or expectations that you cannot or will not uphold. For example, “I promise not to tell anyone.” Or, “If you do this one more time, I’ll never talk to you again.”
- Remove potential stigma. Remind your loved one that there’s no shame in admitting you struggle with an eating disorder or other mental health issue. Many people will be diagnosed with these issues during their lifetimes, and many will recover.
- Avoid overly simplistic solutions. Being told “Just stop” or “Just eat” isn’t helpful. It can leave the sufferer feeling frustrated, defensive, and misunderstood.
- Be prepared for negative reactions. Some eating disorder sufferers are glad that someone has noticed they are struggling. Others respond differently. Some may become angry and hostile, insisting that you are the one with the problem. Others may brush off your concerns or minimize potential dangers. Both of these responses are normal. Reiterate your concerns, let them know you care, and leave the conversation open.
- Encourage them to seek professional help. Many eating disorder sufferers require professional help in order to get better. Offer to help the sufferer find a physician or therapist if they don’t have one, or attend an appointment where the eating disorder is discussed. Getting timely, effective treatment dramatically increases a person’s chances for recovery. If your loved one is ready to seek treatment or you want to explore options, the NEDA Helpline is a great place to start. Contact the Helpline >
- Tell someone. It may seem difficult to know when, if at all, to tell someone else about your concerns. Addressing body image or eating problems in their beginning stages offers your friend the best chance for working through these issues and becoming healthy again. Don’t wait until the situation is so severe that your friend’s life is in danger. Your friend needs a great deal of support and understanding.
Even if you don’t feel the discussion was well-received or that you got through to your loved one, don’t despair. You shared your concern and let them know that you care and you are there for them. You may also have planted a seed that they should seek help. The seed may not take root immediately, but over time, the concern of friends and family can help move an individual towards recovery.
Note: If you suspect a medical or psychiatric emergency, such as threats of suicide or medical complications from eating disorder behaviors (such as fainting, heart arrhythmias, or seizures), seek medical attention or call 911 immediately.
Another useful educational resource is NEDA’s Parent Toolkit. This comprehensive guide is for anyone who wants to understand more about how to support a family member or friend affected by an eating disorder. You will find answers to your insurance questions; signs, symptoms and medical consequences; information about treatment and levels of care; and questions to ask when choosing a treatment provider. Download the Parent Toolkit >
Tips for Encouraging a Loved One to Seek Professional Help
Recovery from an eating disorder requires professional help, and chances of recovery are improved the sooner a person begins treatment. It can be frustrating to watch a loved one suffer and refuse to seek help. Parents of children under 18 can often require that their child’s eating disorder be treated, even if the child doesn’t buy in to the idea that treatment is necessary.
For parents of older sufferers, and other loved ones of sufferers of any age, encouraging a reluctant eating disorder patient to seek help can be a delicate task. It’s crucial to their future well-being, however, to seek recovery, and encouraging proper treatment of their eating disorder can help them move towards that goal.
Although every discussion with an eating disorder sufferer will be slightly different, here are a few basic points to keep in mind:
- Taking the first step towards recovery is scary and challenging. Although the act of seeking help might seem straightforward to you, it can be very stressful and confusing. Keeping that in mind will help you empathize with what the other person is going through.
- Ask if they want help making the first call or appointment. Some individuals may find it less anxiety-provoking if someone else sets up the appointment or goes with them to discuss a potential eating disorder.
- Don’t buy the eating disorder’s excuses. It’s easy enough to promise to see a doctor or a therapist, but the sufferer needs to follow through with making the appointment and seeing a professional on a regular basis. Yes, everyone’s busy, treatment can be expensive, and the eating disorder might not seem like a big deal. Don’t making eating disorder treatment the only thing you talk about with your loved one, but follow up on their promise to see someone.
- If the first professional isn’t a good match, encourage them to keep looking. Finding the right therapist isn’t easy, and someone may have to interview several potential candidates before finding one that works. Sometimes it takes several tries before a person identifies the right clinician.
- Make sure they get a medical check-up. Eating disorders cause a wide range of medical issues, and sufferers need to see a physician regularly to make sure their health isn’t at immediate risk. Remember that lab work may remain stable even if someone is close to death, so don’t rely on blood tests alone.
- Ally with the part of them that wants to get well. Often, eating disorder sufferers are hesitant to change their behaviors. Some people have found it easier to focus on some of the side effects of the eating disorder that the sufferer may be more willing to acknowledge and tackle, such as depression, social isolation, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, or feeling cold. This can help get them in the door, where the eating disorder can begin to be addressed.
- Remind the person of why they want to get well. What types of goals does your loved one have? Do they want to travel? Have children? Go to college? Start a new career? Helping them reconnect with their values and who they want to be can help them stay focused on long-term recovery and not the short-term benefits of the eating disorder.
- Find a middle ground between forcing the issue and ignoring it. If you become overly insistent and combative about your loved one seeking help, they may start to avoid you. On the other hand, you don’t want to ignore a potentially deadly illness. It’s not easy to find a middle ground between these two extremes, but regularly checking in with your loved one about how they’re doing and if they are willing to seek treatment can help nudge them in the right direction.