Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED
Recovery from an eating disorder requires professional help, and chances of recovery are improved the sooner a person begins treatment. It can be frustrating to watch a loved one suffer and refuse to seek help. Parents of children under 18 can often require that their child’s eating disorder be treated, even if the child doesn’t buy into the idea that treatment is necessary.
For parents of older children and other loved ones of any age, encouraging someone who is reluctant to seek treatment for an eating disorder can be a delicate task. It’s crucial to their future well-being, however, to seek recovery, and encouraging proper treatment of their eating disorder can help them move towards that goal.
Although every discussion with someone struggling with an eating disorder will be slightly different, here are a few basic points to keep in mind:
- Taking the first step towards recovery is scary and challenging. Although the act of seeking help might seem straightforward to you, it can be very stressful and confusing for those who are affected by eating disorders. Keeping that in mind will help you empathize with what the other person may be going through.
- Ask if they want help making the first call or appointment. Some individuals may find it less anxiety-provoking if someone else sets up the appointment or goes with them to discuss a potential eating disorder.
- Don’t buy the eating disorder’s excuses. It’s easy enough to promise to see a doctor or a therapist, but your loved one needs to follow through with making the appointment and seeing a professional on a regular basis. Yes, everyone’s busy, treatment can be expensive, and the eating disorder might not seem like a big deal. Don’t make eating disorder treatment the only thing you talk about with your loved one but follow up on their promise to see someone.
- If the first professional isn’t a good match, encourage them to keep looking. Finding the right therapist isn’t easy, and someone may have to interview several potential candidates before finding one that works. Sometimes it takes several tries before a person identifies the right clinician. Learn more about questions to ask a professional here.
- Make sure they get a medical check-up. Eating disorders cause a wide range of medical issues, and people with eating disorders need to see a physician regularly to make sure their health isn’t at immediate risk. Remember that lab work may remain stable even if someone is close to death, so don’t rely on blood tests alone. Learn more about medical evaluation and diagnosis here.
- Join with the part of them that wants to get well. Often, someone with an eating disorder is hesitant to change their behaviors. Some people have found it easier to focus on some of the side effects of the eating disorder that their loved one may be more willing to acknowledge and tackle, such as depression, social isolation, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, or feeling cold. This can help get them in the door, where the eating disorder can begin to be addressed.
- Remind the person of why they want to get well. What types of goals does your loved one have? Do they want to travel? Have children? Go to college? Start a new career? Helping them reconnect with their values and who they want to be can help them stay focused on long-term recovery and not the short-term perceived benefits of the eating disorder.
- Find a middle ground between forcing the issue and ignoring it. If you become overly insistent and combative about your loved one seeking help, they may start to avoid you. On the other hand, you don’t want to ignore a potentially deadly illness. It’s not easy to find a middle ground between these two extremes, but regularly checking in with your loved one about how they’re doing, how they would like to be supported, and if they are willing to seek treatment can help nudge them in the right direction.