Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED
Friends and family are often key to encouraging loved ones with eating and/or body image issues to seek help. Whether they are unaware that there is a problem, they are afraid or ashamed to seek help, or they are ambivalent about giving up their concerning behaviors, many people with eating and/or body image concerns find it difficult to seek help. Family and friends can play an important role in identifying symptoms to the person struggling and encouraging them to seek help.
If you are concerned about the eating habits or body image of someone you care about, we understand that this may be a very difficult and scary time for you. It’s not always easy to discuss eating concerns, especially with someone you are close to. However, identifying your concerns and seeking more information is essential; many individuals now in recovery from an eating disorder say the support of family and friends was crucial to them seeking help and getting well.
Tips for How to Talk to a Loved One
- Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. Read books, articles, and brochures. Know the difference between facts and myths about weight, nutrition, and exercise. Knowing the facts will help you reason with your loved one about any inaccurate ideas that may be fueling their disordered eating patterns.
- Rehearse what you want to say. This may help reduce your anxiety and clarify exactly what you want to say. Some have found writing out their main points helpful.
- Set a private time and place to talk. No one wants to have personal issues dissected in front of a crowd, so make sure you find a time and place where you will have time to discuss your concerns without being rushed or in front of a crowd.
- Be honest. Talk openly and honestly about your concerns with the person who is experiencing eating or body image problems. Avoiding it or ignoring it won’t help!
- Use “I” statements. Focus on behaviors that you have personally observed, such as “I have noticed that you aren’t eating dinner with us anymore,” or “I am worried about how frequently you are going to the gym.” It’s easy to sound accusatory (“You’re not eating! You’re exercising too much!”), which can cause a person to feel defensive. Instead, stick to pointing out what you’ve observed. If you can, also point out behaviors not related to eating and weight, which may be easier for the person to see and accept.
- Stick to the facts. Raising concerns about a potential eating disorder can bring up lots of emotions, and it’s important not to let those run the show. Instead, talk about behaviors and changes you have observed and calmly point out why you are concerned (“I have seen you run to the bathroom after meals and feel worried you might be making yourself throw up.”).
- Be caring but be firm. Caring about your friend or family member does not mean being manipulated by them. Your loved one must be responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. Avoid making rules, promises, or expectations that you cannot or will not uphold. For example, “I promise not to tell anyone.” Or, “If you do this one more time, I’ll never talk to you again.”
- Remove potential stigma. Remind your loved one that there’s no shame in admitting you struggle with an eating disorder or other mental health issue. Many people will be diagnosed with these issues during their lifetimes, and many will recover.
- Avoid overly simplistic solutions. Being told “Just stop” or “Just eat” isn’t helpful. It can leave the person feeling frustrated, defensive, and misunderstood.
- Be prepared for negative reactions. Some may be glad that someone has noticed they are struggling. Others may respond differently. Some may become angry and defensive, insisting that you are the one with the problem. Others may brush off your concerns or minimize potential dangers. All of these responses are normal. Reiterate your concerns, let them know you care, and leave the conversation open.
- Encourage them to seek professional help. The recommended strategy to deal with an eating disorder is to seek professional help. Offer help finding a physician or therapist if they don’t have one or attend an appointment where the eating disorder is discussed. Getting timely, effective treatment dramatically increases a person’s chances for recovery. If your loved one is ready to seek treatment, or you want to explore options you can search for treatment providers here.
- Tell someone. It may seem difficult to know when, if at all, to tell someone else about your concerns. Addressing body image or eating problems in their beginning stages offers your loved one the best chance for working through these issues and becoming healthy again. Don’t wait until the situation is so severe that your friend or family member’s life is in danger. Your loved one needs a great deal of support and understanding.
Even if you don’t feel the discussion was well-received or that you got through to your loved one, don’t despair. You shared your concern and let them know that you care and are there for them. You may also have planted a seed that they should seek help. The seed may not take root immediately, but over time, the concern of friends and family can help move an individual towards recovery.
Note: If you suspect a medical or psychiatric emergency, such as threats of suicide or medical complications from eating disorder behaviors (such as fainting, heart arrhythmias, or seizures), seek medical attention or call 911 immediately.
Another useful educational resource is NEDA’s Parent Toolkit. This comprehensive guide is for anyone who wants to understand more about how to support a family member or friend affected by an eating disorder. You will find answers to your insurance questions; signs, symptoms and medical consequences; information about treatment and levels of care; and questions to ask when choosing a treatment provider.