Supporting your loved one through an eating disorder

By BodyMatters’ Psychologist Kellie Hodder – check out her facebook fan page here!

Living with or knowing someone with an eating disorder is enormously challenging. It can be difficult to know how to support your loved and through the recovery process. At BodyMatters we often speak to parents, friends and relatives who want to know how they should help their loved one through an eating disorder. The aim is always the same- to help their loved one through and make them feel better. The best way to do this is often less clear.

The first step of approaching your loved one about their eating disorder can be very difficult. Your loved one may not necessarily want any help to change their behaviours. They may be scared of changing and have trouble imagining a life without their eating disorder. They may be aware that they are causing you heartache but are caught between easing your pain, and wanting to maintain their eating disorder. It is important that your loved one acknowledges that there is an issue. Ultimately they will need to make the choice to relinquish the eating disorder and move towards making changes. Making the choice to recover is a difficult one and can be made easier if they have a sense of support from the people close to them.

Once the choice has been made to recover, it is normal for your loved one’s motivation to fluctuate between wanting to change and wanting to keep their eating disorder. Eating disorders usually develop over a prolonged period of time and often serve to help the person cope with distressing or unwanted emotions. Thinking about an eating disorder as a form of coping mechanism can help you to understand why it can be so difficult for your loved one to make the choice to give it up. An eating disorder can serve to work as providing a feeling of security and safety and your loved one may feel that by giving up their eating disorder, they are giving up something that has kept them safe and secure.

Therefore changing their eating disorder behaviours can be frightening and anxiety provoking as they will experience both mental and physical changes. These changes can prove to be challenging and may result in your loved one acting out in ways that can be confusing and hurtful for both them and yourself. At times you may feel fed up, frustrated, sad, resentful, frightened and exhausted. These are normal feelings and finding ways to manage these emotions and not blame yourself or your loved one, is one of the most beneficial things you can do.

Other ways you can support your loved one through their recovery are:

  • Provide them with unconditional love, support and acceptance. Show them that you will be there through every step of recovery.
  • Ask them how you can support them and help them through.
  • Allow and expect that your loved one will experience fear, resistance and uncertainty among other uncomfortable emotions.
  • Understand that progress may be slow and not be at the pace you may like or expect. Try to be patient.
  • Understand as much as you can about their eating disorder. Ask them what it is like if they are willing to share.
  • Move the focus off food and onto feelings.
  • Express your concerns about their health and wellbeing.
  • Let your loved one know how you are feeling too.
  • Try to remember that your loved one is distressed and has not stopped caring for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your loved one’s recovery is becoming overwhelming, seek professional treatment and support for them as well as yourself.
  • Understand that your relationship will change over the course of recovery. While these changes can be painful and difficult to deal with, they are a sign of progress.
  • For parents, it is important that the limits you set continue to be maintained. While this may be difficult, try not to overlook behaviour that is unacceptable. Aim for consistency and unity in your approach.
  • Continue to engage in shared activities.
  • Setbacks are also inevitable. Help them learn from these and choose different behaviours next time.
  • Reframe these setbacks as part of the recovery process.
  • Remember it is not your fault.
  • Supporting a loved one through an eating disorder can be difficult, distressing and take a toll on your own wellbeing and health. It is crucial that you maintain awareness of your support needs and find your own ways and resources to nurture yourself and replenish your energy.

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