What do I do if Someone I Care About Has an Eating Disorder? PDF Print E-mail

If you suspect or know that someone you care about has an eating disorder, you may be asking yourself what you can do or if you should do anything. Before you do anything take some time to think about and plan your best course of action.

Learn more about eating disorders.

Knowing more about eating disorders can help you become clearer about the behavioral, emotional and physical signs you observe in the individual. As you become clearer about what you are seeing, you can become clearer about your concerns for the individual.

Find out what help is available for the person with an eating disorder and for yourself.

The individual with the eating disorder is not the only one who needs support. Recovery can be a challenging process for everyone involved.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Am I the best person to approach her/him?
  • Who is the best person to approach her/him?
  • Do I need to talk to her/his parents, teacher or counselor before I do anything?

Take a look at how the eating disorder affects you and your life.

The ways in which you are affected can be part of what you want to say to her/him. If you are a family member or roommate, you may be affected by disappearing food or a messy bathroom. You might miss the activities you used to do together.

Examine your own attitudes to dieting, body shape and size

Being aware of your own prejudices will help you avoid bringing them into the situation. Consider how your attitudes may be affecting your perception of what is happening.

Consider what outcomes you want.

Before you talk to her/him, you need to know what you hope will come of the talk. If what you want is for her/him to get professional help, what you say will be different than if you want to offer them your support or ask for behavior changes.

Decide what you want to say.

If you decide you are going to talk to her/him think about what you want to say. Consider what you see, how you are affected and what outcomes you want. You may want to write down what you want to say. You may want to rehearse it with someone.

Choose the time.

It is best that you choose a time when you are both calm, a time when you will have privacy and will net be interrupted.

Be honest and clear in what you want to say.

Focus on what you see and hear and what you feel. Be nonjudgmental. Be as clear and direct as possible.

One way that is helpful in doing this is using "I" statements.

These are statements that focus on your feelings and experience rather than the other person's. Not all statements that begin with "I" are "I" statements. For example, "I think you are too thin." is a statement about the other person and contains judgment. The other person is likely to hear this as attack or blame.

True "I" statements are about you. For example, "I feel worried about you because of the changes I see in you." or "I feel angry when I find that food I planned to serve for dinner is gone."

Using "I" statements does not mean you cannot talk about the other person. When you do talk about her/him, talk about what you see or hear and avoid making a judgment about it. Stick to the facts.

Offer support if you are willing.

You may offer support in finding appropriate professional help. You may want to offer to support her/him by listening. This may be the first time she/he has talked about the eating disorder.
Remember to take care of yourself. Don't take on more than you can handle. Don't try to be a therapist.

Be prepared for denial or anger.

Sometimes the individual will be relieved that you spoke up and be ready to accept your support and seek help.
Often though the response is denial or anger. This does not mean your efforts have failed. Whether the individual acknowledges it or not, you have been heard in some way. It could be that the individual is not ready yet or it could be that she/he is not able to hear it as it was said. If you think the latter could be the case, try again using a different approach. You might want to ask for guidance on a different approach.

Take action if it is an emergency.

Eating disorders are serious. The most common emergencies are threat of suicide or physical harm and life-threatening effects of starvation or purging. In these instances, immediate professional help is essential. Do what you need to do to get her/him to a hospital or doctor as quickly as possible. Anyone in this state is not in a position to decide what is best for her/him.

Stop the conversation if it is not going well.

This conversation is likely to be difficult. If it does begin to turn into a power struggle or you are getting angry or upset, it is advisable to stop the conversation for the time being. Let him/her know you would like to continue at another time. Stopping does not mean that you have failed. You have made a start. It is unlikely that you will be able to say everything you want in one conversation and probably not advisable to try.
Remember whatever you do or say needs to be done out of concern for the well-being of the person with the eating disorder.