In our previous post on how to support a loved one with an eating disorder, you learned how to better understand the mindset of your loved one or friend who is struggling with an eating disorder. Being able to put yourself in their shoes is helpful–but it can still be difficult to figure out what to say when you observe the behaviors of their eating disorder. How do you respond when you see them skipping meals or purging? How do you support them even as they keep calling themselves fat? How do you stay positive in the face of your loved one’s struggle?Below, we have some concrete guidelines and suggestions for how to have a supportive conversation with your loved one.
Use facts, not judgments.
It can be easy to present your feelings first and the facts second. For example, if your loved one has started skipping breakfast to go to the gym, you may actually feel like they care more about exercising than they do about your relationship. Of course, this is your interpretation of the situation. And if you start a conversation with your loved one with your interpretation of their behavior and how it affects you, the likely result will be hurt feelings on both sides. It’s better to present your loved one with the facts, and let them respond to those.
Try this: “I’ve noticed over the last two weeks that you’ve been spending more time at the gym and skipping breakfast when we used to eat together.”
Be clear about why you’re concerned – don’t shy away from addressing worrisome behaviors.
When you see your loved one doing or saying something that seems unhealthy or risky, it can be hard to know how to react. Sometimes it might seem like the best thing to do is just to ignore the behavior. Maybe you’re not sure if it’s any of your business. Or maybe you think that someone else is the one who should or will speak up. Maybe you’ve even brought up the topic before with bad results. But supporting a loved one or friend means not being shy–it means being present with your concerns.
Try this: “I’ve been seeing some things that make me concerned. For example, I overheard you in the bathroom after dinner yesterday throwing up, and others have said they’ve noticed this too. I want to be there for you and make sure you get support.”
Don’t fall into the reassurance trap.
We’ve been taught to reassure each other as a way to show our love and support. In this case, though, you want to reassure positive behaviors, not reassure the eating disorder.
Try this: “When you talk about how fat you are there’s really no response I can give that will make you feel better, so when that happens in the future I’ll probably change the subject. I’m not doing this because I don’t care, but because I don’t think my response is going to help you no matter what I say.”
Ask what you can do to help.
You might assume that your loved one or friend will ask for help if they need it, or would prefer to tell you in their own time what they need you to do. It’s still best in these cases to make it abundantly clear that you’re there for them.
Try this: “I hope you know that I’m here for you and want to help you fight this. Of course, I want to support you in ways you find helpful. Is there anything I can do?”
Remain firm in your support.
If you’ve offered your help to a loved one and been told to back off, it can be hard to know how to remain supportive.
Try this: “I get that right now you’re not sure you want to change your eating habits, that it might feel scary, and so it might feel easier to ask me to back off. I care a lot about you and want to make sure you can continue to work and go to school and do all the things that you care about. I can’t let this eating disorder take your life away from you.”
Express hope and certainty about their ability to change and improve–now and in the future.
Sometimes in trying to be supportive, we end up taking decisions out of the hands of our loved one in an effort to shield them. Maybe you know that your loved one has a fear of bingeing, for example, so you stop inviting them to situations where they may be tempted to do so. Don’t. Instead of taking that choice away from them, just let them know you’ll support them through it now or in the future. Give them the choice and the support.
Try this: “Right now, I know it feels overwhelming to grab some pizza with me given your fear of bingeing. I am here for you when and if you want me to help you figure out how to enjoy the experience in a way that feels safe, now or in the future.”
Look for, directly acknowledge, and reinforce healthy behaviors and eating disorder-free moments.
It might feel natural to only talk about your loved one’s disordered eating habits when you see them doing something negative like purging or skipping meals. But it’s important to acknowledge your loved one’s positive efforts, too. Their struggle is likely always on their mind, so getting positive feedback for their successes is important too. Be genuine and encouraging.
Try this: “It was so much fun being able to go out together with friends to our favorite coffee shop – I missed doing that with you while you were in the hospital. It was really fun to laugh and catch up on what’s going on with you.”
For more information and resources, please visit National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). You can also read more from Lantern on how to support a loved one with an eating disorder here.