When seeing a family member suffering from an eating disorder it can be a terrifying feeling. One might notice them exhibiting symptoms such as excessive weight gain or loss, restricting, binging, purging, excessive/compulsive eating or compulsive exercise (just to name a few). Maybe one will even notice symptoms of their eating disorder affecting the whole family, as anxiety can be triggered throughout.
Of course, we all just want our loved ones to see themselves the way everyone else sees them. You want them to love themselves the way you love them. Most importantly, we just want them to be healthy. Thus, the question is, how can we accomplish helpful and healthy family support on the road to eating disorder recovery? Well, there is no one way to help someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, but this guide aims to give you, the family, the basic tools to be there for your loved one and get them the professional help they need.
Firstly, I find that it is imperative to be patient and open-minded. At this point, all we can do is accept your loved one where they are and be open to all that they are feeling. Whenever possible, validate their feelings and reflect on that with them. Some days they might need you to say “I hear you and I see you,” other days they might just need you to hold their hand. It may be tempting to want to help your loved one with their eating habits, but I implore one to leave this to the professionals. Always try to remain focused on supporting their emotional health by being that shoulder for them to lean on.
It is also important to remember that we can not change them, the family can not make them “better”, we can only encourage and support them in the process. It might be a good idea to ask your loved one if you can help with functional tasks that can help to alleviate stress in their life. For example, you can ask if they would like help doing their laundry, walking the dog, or if they would like a ride to work. Don’t forget to work together on this as a family. If the care giving responsibility falls on one head, it can become challenging to maintain your own needs.
Finally, it will be helpful to reinforce positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have nothing to do with eating, food, or their physical appearance. This means paying attention to the little things. For example, when your loved one is telling you about their day, how they got a good grade on their test, or just told you that they missed you- reinforce it with love and praise! Try to redirect the conversation from the physical to the emotional, and soul. Praising intellect, passion, happiness, or good efforts go a lot further than the physical.
Try these simple steps:
–Educate yourself– The more you know, the more you’ll understand and be better prepared to help them through it. There are numerous books, TedTalks, and resources available for the family, many of our other blogs are geared towards education- dive right in!
–Don’t rationalize, just listen– Looking for a reason to blame is not helpful; what you may perceive as an “obvious solution” will not magically “cure” them. Try to listen and reflect on what they say. They will be more open with you going forward.
–Do check-ins– It may seem overbearing but checking in on your loved one is a vital task of supportive recovery. They may isolate and push people away, being sensitive to these behaviors will help with their recovery- although a little alone time is great for reflection, be sure to keep a keen eye out for it becoming a little too much isolation.
–Support with boundaries- Encourage your loved one to seek professional help. You can not do this alone and eating disorder professionals (like us!) are specifically trained to best help with their needs.