- Learn to listen. This means hearing what the person means. Try staying attuned to nonverbal messages from their behaviors and check it out with them. For example, “I notice you are slamming doors and stomping around. Are you angry about something?” By listening, you are letting the person know you care about them and what they have to say. Listening means you care about their ideas, opinions and feelings. Listening does not mean fixing or giving solutions. Listening means accurately perceiving what the person is saying.
- Remember this is a troublesome time and your emotions will change constantly. You will probably experience feelings of anger, frustration, rage, fear, helplessness, hurt, powerlessness, confusion, guilt, and depression. These are normal and will range in intensity. The person with the eating disorder now has a lot of the power in the family whether they know it or not. Sometimes, your loved one or friend will appear helpless and pathetic and at the other times stubborn and resistant.
- It is important to provide support and encouragement to your loved ones and also take care of yourself. Avoid sacrificing yourself for your loved ones or friend. This will only leave you feeling emotionally drained and resentful. Instead, make time for enjoyable activities and fun for yourself and the family. By doing so, you are sending an important message to the sufferers by modeling self-care. Also remember to continue pursuing interests and activities outside the family and encourage the person with the eating disorder to do the same (unless he/she is medically unstable).
- There are no quick or easy answers or cures to an eating disorder. Psychotherapists and physicians cannot work “magic”. To recover, your loved one or friend must make changes in their attitudes and behaviors. Also, the family must be willing to make attitude and behavioral changes to accommodate your loved one’s new insights and growth. The recovery process takes a long time.
- Stay away from blame. It is useless to blame either yourself or the person with the eating disorder. No one is at fault. Guilt and blame are paralyzing and become a block towards recovery. While it is true that recovery is the responsibility of the person with the eating disorder, it is equally important to realize that you have a responsibility to become aware of the ways you may be “enabling” or participating in the problem. The causes of an eating disorder are multifaceted. The eating disorder may or may not be a function of the family organization. It is imperative that you educate yourself about what the specific triggers were for your family member or friend that has the eating disorder. Separate the person from their eating disorder. Be very clear in your mind how the person was prior to the eating disorder, and attribute these changes to the eating disorder not the person.
- When dealing with a minor it is vital to get them into treatment immediately. Do not let your fear that they will hate you keep you from getting help. The earlier they receive aggressive and appropriate treatment, the earlier it will be in the long run for them to recover. However, if your friend or loved one is over 18, you have no control over whether they will seek help. Only they can make that choice. What you do have control over is to be a support and a voice that reminds them how they were before the eating disorder. What you do have control over is how you participate in the problems. Be aware of how you may be rescuing and enabling the disorder.
- Keep the focus on yourself and be cautious of the desire to be overprotective of your loved one or friend. For example, if they are upset about school, relationships, or work, let them take responsibility of the problem. You may find yourself wanting to take care of them and solve their problems. There is a tendency for the person with the eating disorder to avoid situations that may be distressing. However, experiencing and dealing with uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings and situations is part of life and adulthood that they need to learn to work through.
- Talk with your loved one or friend about the issues other than food, calories, diet, weight, appearance. Avoid lecture on eating, food, and weight gain. In other words, stay out of their food. Avoid criticizing and scrutinizing the person’s behavior and choices. It is okay to be upset about a situation, however criticism only makes things worse. You may have a natural tendency to want to control their food. This tends to make matters worse. Once you enter treatment, the nutritionist will guide you through how to support the person with their meals.
- It is important that your child or friend feel loved and supported by you. Be both physically and verbally affectionate with them. Remember to appreciate them for who they are as a person and not for what they do. Demonstrate lots of physical and verbal affection. Their eating disorder tends to make them feel very unworthy and ashamed and they may feel very unloved by you.
- Do not police your friend or loved one’s food or weight gain. This will lead to power struggles that you want to avoid at all costs. Avoiding these negative battles will keep you from being the “bad guy”. Remember that recovery is their responsibility. Avoid catering to the needs of the eating disorder. For example, only buying special foods that she/he will eat and not buying foods you enjoy or allowing the eating problem to dominate the family’s usual eating schedule. It is important to meet their emotional needs and treat them with love and respect. However, this does not include treating them differently from other people. It is helpful for them to see that people have their own lives.
- Explore why the person with the eating disorder wants to cook for the family and try not to allow the person with the eating disorder to shop or cook for the family. This is common behavior but one that puts him/her in the role of nurturing and feeding others instead of him/herself. Draw boundaries around food. The person with the eating disorder is compelled to shop for food, cook for and feed the family. Do not allow them to do these things. Feeding others is a way in which the person with the eating disorder is virtually feeding him/herself. Also, the more starved they are the more food obsessions and rituals they have. Drawing a boundary enables them to assess their own hunger. They are probably watching the food channel and cutting tons of coupons and obsessed with healthy eating.
- Improve communication skills. Use “I” statements when communicating with others. For example. “I feel angry when you borrow things from me without asking and what I would like is if you would ask me beforehand.” This way you take responsibility for your feelings and stay away from blame, which puts people on the defensive. Also, avoid statements such as “why are you doing this to us?” or “our family is falling apart because of you.” These statements often come from a feeling of rage and helplessness and should be eliminated completely. Statements like these only further the shame that the person with the eating disorder carries. Eating disorders are fed by shame and guilt.
- Do not leave major decisions up to the person with the eating disorder. For instance, where to go on vacation or what kind of food the family eats. Remember that the person with the eating disorder will be wanting to go to “safe” places to eat and perhaps “binge” restaurants. It is a natural tendency to want to cater to a picky eater. However, this gives the eating disorder a lot of power in the family and eventually it will lead to resentments. It is important to be clear, kind and decisive when communicating your decisions.
- Admit your own mistakes. It is a great way to model the message that they are not expected to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Avoid being moralistic and judgmental about their moods and behavior (especially when it comes to their food or weight). Be patient with yourself and with your loved one or friend. Their eating disorder has become their best friend and they will not let go of it all at once. As they learn additional coping skills via their therapy, they will gradually say goodbye to the eating disorder.
- READ, READ, READ. educate yourself by reading stories of the illness and recovery process. Particularly important is your detachment that comes from understanding the eating disorder voice verses the healthy recovery voice. By reading you will be able to love, support, and empathize rather than blame, chastise, and threaten. Love is the key to recovery.
We highly recommend that you order these books and read them as soon as possible. These books are available at www.bulimia.com.
Your Dieting Daughter: Is She Dying For Attention by Carolyn Costin, M.A., M.Ed., M.F.C.C. (Gurze Books,1997)
When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook by Abigail H. Natenshon (Gurze Books,1999)
Surviving an Eating Disorder: Perspectives and Strategies for Family and Friends, Revised Edition by Michelle Siegel,Ph.D., Judith Brisman, Ph.D, & Margot Weinshel, Ph.D. (Gurze Books, 1997)
Healthy Within, Inc. (2005)