Tracy Narins Welchoff, Ph.D.
Before approaching someone you suspect has an eating disorder, it is important that you educate yourself so as to be in the best position to help. This minimizes the chances of accidentally embarrassing or angering the person or, even worse, pushing him or her away. Eating disorders are much more complicated that simply being food and weight issues. Rather, they are a complex set of disorders can be made up of psychological, social, family, and biological factors. An eating disorder is not deliberate, even if it started out with an intention to diet. An eating disorder can start as a diet, but it becomes whipped into an out-of-control frenzy by these underlying issues and take on a life of its own.
When approaching your loved one, here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Avoid talking about food, weight, or appearance. Those are not the real issues.
• Assure them that they are not alone and that you love them and want to help in any way that you can.
• Encourage them to seek help and offer to facilitate this process.
• Never try to force them to eat.
• Do not blame the individual and do not get angry with them .
• Acknowledge the intense anxiety that is involved in the eating disorder. Often someone does not want to change his or her behavior but is willing to get help for the associated anxiety. This is a start.
• Be patient, recovery takes time.
• Mention your concern, but do not focus on your own feelings. This is not about you. Focusing on your own anger, anxiety, or stress will only cause guilt (but not change).
• Do not make mealtimes a battleground
• Listen, but do not be quick to give opinions and advice.
• Do not take on the role of a therapist.
• The person may deny the problem at first. Don’t argue, just emphasize that you care.
• Watching someone you care about suffering both physically and emotionally is frightening, frustrating, and confusing. No matter how concerned you are, you cannot force someone to accept help.
• Be careful what you say to the person who is suffering. Careless remarks will cause further pain, guilt, and withdrawal.
If you still aren’t sure how to proceed, don’t hesitate to consult with a professional.