Eating disorfers can begin at any age. It's not easy to watch someone you care about damage their health. But eating disorders aren't really about food or weight. They are attempts to deal with distressing emotional and stress-related issues. You can't force a person with an eating disorder to change, but you can offer your support and encourage treatment. And that can make a huge difference.
But dont go around telling other people. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy. She wouldnt want everyone to know, especially as she trusted you to admit it.
In the meantime, if you want to help, it might sound simple, but the best thing you can do for someone with a mental illness is to listen. Because eating disorders are often about expressing feelings from the inside, giving your friend space and time to talk, and have someone listen can be one of the first steps to recovery.
You may be hesitant to say anything out of fear that you’re mistaken, or that you’ll say the wrong thing. Although it’s undeniably difficult to bring up the subject, don’t let these worries keep you from telling her valid concerns. People with mental illness are often afraid to ask for help. Some are struggling just as much as you are to find a way to start a conversation about their problem. The sooner you start to help a loved one, the better their chances of recovery.
When approaching a loved one about an eating disorder, it’s important to talk in a loving and non-judgmental way. Choose a place where you both feel safe and won’t be disturbed. Choose a time when neither of you feels angry or upset. Avoid any time just before or after meals. Then explain why you’re concerned. Try to remain calm, focused, and respectful. When starting a conversation with her, you can say things like: 'I have been feeling concerned about you lately'. 'Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing'. 'I wanted to check in with you because you have seemed pretty down lately.'
Try to be accepting and open-minded. Let your friend know you are there for her, and that she is loved. Encourage your friend to talk about her feelings, and be willing to listen without judgment. Reassure her that it's ok to talk about her distress and that she has your support. Hold back from asking a lot of questions, but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support she needs. Don't force her though, if she doesn't want to talk, just let her know you want to listen and are always there for her when she wants to.
Your friend maybecome angry and defensive. Try to avoid getting angry in response, and don’t be disheartened or put off. Reassure her that you’ll be there when she's ready, and that your concern is her wellbeing. Its also important to remember, you cannot force someone to change. But you can help by making it clear that you’ll continue to be there for her, whenever they’re ready to tackle the problem.
Don’t wait too long before approaching her again. It might feel even harder than the first conversation, especially if she didn’t react well, but if you’re still worried, keeping quiet about it won’t help. Remember, eating disorders thrive on secrecy.
If she wants to talk, when talking, you can ask things like: 'Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?', 'How can I best support you right now?' You also can say things like: 'You are not alone in this, I’m here for you'. 'I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help'. 'You are important to me. Tell me what I can do now to help you'. 'You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.'
When talking to her, other things you can do to help are:
- Focus on feelings, not on weight and food. While it may be necessary to bring this up to explain why you’re worried, these may be things they’re particularly sensitive about. So ask her how she is feeling and listen. Let your friend unload despair, anger, anxieties. No matter how negative the conversation gets, the fact that it exists is a positive sign.
- Avoid offering advice. It probably seems natural to share advice with your friend, but this wont help. What helps instead, is to ask, “What can I do to help you feel better?” This gives your friend the opportunity to ask for help.
- Tell her you are concerned about her health, but respect her privacy. Eating disorders are often a cry for help, and the individual will appreciate knowing that you are concerned.
- Give your friend time to talk about her feelings – don’t rush her through the conversation.
- Do not comment on how she looks. People with eating disorders are already too aware of their body. Even if you are trying to compliment her, for example, “You’re looking well” may sound like a comment on weight. Comments about weight or appearance will only reinforce her obsession with body image and weight. Compliments on things other than appearance can help the person feel valued and is less likely to cause these worries.
- Make sure you do not convey any fat prejudice, or reinforce her desire to be thin. If she says she feels fat or wants to lose weight, don't say "You're not fat." Instead, suggest she explore her fears about being fat, and what she thinks she can achieve by being thin.
- Avoid power struggles about eating. Do not demand that she change. Do not criticize her eating habits. People with eating disorders are trying to be in control. They don't feel in control of their life. Trying to trick or force them to eat can make things worse.
- Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt on her regarding her actions or attitudes. Do not use accusatory “you” statements like, “You just need to eat.” Or, “You are acting irresponsibly.” Instead, use “I” statements. For example: “I’m concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch.”
- Try not to take on the role of a therapist or dominate the conversation. You do not need to have all the answers; it is most important to listen and create a space for the person to talk.
- Avoid manipulative statements like ‘Think about what you are doing to me’ or ‘If you loved me you would eat properly.’ And avoid giving simple solutions. For example, "If you'd just stop, then everything would be fine!" This can worsen the eating disorder.
- Have realistic expectations. It can be frustrating to watch someone with an eating disorder struggle, especially if progress is slow. Having patience is important. Remember, recovery doesn’t happen overnight.
But, he most important thing you can do for a person with an eating disorder is to encourage treatment. While you can be there and support your friend, you cannot do everything. If they acknowledge that they need help, encourage them to seek it as quickly as possible. Keep encouraging her to get help, perhaps from a parent, teacher or councilor. And above all, keep encouraging her to see her GP and get professional help. Dont force her though, just let her know there is more support out there when she is ready. You could also offer to go with her for support.
And remember, make sure that you take care of yourself. It is hard dealing with the fact that someone you care about has a mental illness, and it can also be hard work and frustrating at times. Remember to take some time for yourself to clear your mind and relax. You cant help someone else if you don't take care of yourself or if you are stressed. Hope this helps and good luck.