When A Loved One Has An Eating Disorder: How Families Can Help

It’s hard to know how to be helpful or supportive to someone struggling with an eating disorder. Here are some very basic guidelines for how families can help:

What To Do

  • Talk about things other than food, weight, body size, calories, and exercise.
  • Discuss feelings instead.
  • Listen with respect and sensitivity.  Listening goes a long long way!
  • Let your loved one know that you’re interested in learning more.  Anything he/she is willing to share is welcome and encouraged.
  • Express your concern and desire to help.
  • Be available when you are needed.
  • Stay calm and be persistent if you encounter resistance.
  • Encourage your family member to seek help from a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional, and offer to accompany him or her for emotional support.

What Not To Do

  • Try to solve the problem for your family member; he or she needs a qualified professional.
  • Comment on appearance—concern about weight loss may be taken as a compliment, and comments about weight gain may be experienced as criticism.
  • Threaten or use scare tactics to get your loved one to change or seek treatment.
  • Focus on weight, body size, calories, eating habits, or exercise.
  • Blame your family member for doing something wrong.
  • Use food as a reward or punishment.
  • Be afraid to upset or talk to your loved one.
  • Reject or ignore your family member; he or she needs you.

According to Chevese Turner, Founder, President and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association, what families can do, above all else, is to “be kind and compassionate, because your loved one is suffering much more than you can know.”

How Families Can Help: Family-Based Treatment (Maudsley) Interventions

In some cases, family involvement in treatment may extend well beyond the kind of support we reference above. In fact, Family-Based Treatment (FBT also called Maudsley) is a powerful, proven intervention for anorexia and bulimia in children and adolescents. It involves empowering parents/caregivers to take over feeding for a period of time until the child/teen is able to restore weight and manage independent eating. For many young patients with severe eating disorders, FBT is a safe and effective alternative to hospitalization.  Patients are able to continue with daily activities and do the work of recovery in a real life setting.

For adult patients – particularly those with anorexia – Family-Based Treatment is also an option. Of course, for adult patients, parent or family-member involvement is more sensitive to navigate. Still, using families as a resource can be life-saving for adult patients.

Family-Based Treatment programs have proven highly successful and are an area of expertise for the clinicians at Columbus Park Treatment Center in New York City. Interested in learning more about our Family Based Treatment programming? Head to our website!