Disordered Eating: Helping a Friend
It is difficult to watch a friend or loved one struggle with disordered eating. You may want to help, but don’t know how. We can’t force our friends to develop healthier attitudes, but we can offer support. People who are struggling with these issues are putting their physical and emotional health in danger, and in extreme cases, their lives. It is important to speak about your concerns because you care about them. Here are some tips
Step One: Plan an effective approach
- Decide upon one or two caring individuals who will approach the person you are concerned about. Close, trusted friends or are usually best. The individual(s) should be prepared to encourage the person to seek further help with a trained health professional (see Resources below).
- The individual(s) chosen should also convey a sensible attitude concerning weight-related issues and a healthy, realistic approach to eating and exercise.
- Establish a private, safe environment.
- Consider rehearsing what will be said.
- Learn about the danger signs of an eating disorder at http://www.something-fishy.org.
Step Two: During the Conversation
- Express your concerns in a straightforward, yet caring manner. Share
two or three specific examples/times when you felt afraid or uneasy. Use
an “I” message format:
- Example: "I noticed you’ve been avoiding meals with us lately. I wonder if we could talk about that?'
- Example: “I feel concerned about the weight you’ve lost this past quarter. I was hoping we could talk about this.”
- Example: "I noticed you’ve been dieting for a long time now. Is it possible for us to discuss this?”
- Then, give the person time to talk and encourage him/her to verbalize feelings. Continue to engage discussion by asking clarifying questions and accepting responses in a non-judgmental manner.
- Be prepared for strong feelings/reactions from the person (i.e., denial, anger, confusion).
- Toward the end of the discussion, provide information and resources for counseling/treatment (see Resources). At this point you might offer to go along and wait while he/she has a first appointment.
- Close the discussion by letting him/her know you are willing to talk
- Example: “I know you feel things are okay, but that will not change my concerns. I hope we can talk again about this because I care about you and your health.”
Don’t debate concerning food eaten or not eaten, calories consumed, and/or look for reasons that contributed to the development an eating disorder. Remember—your primary purpose is to be supportive and to encourage the person to seek further help
- Don't offer advice or personal opinions.
- Don't engage in an argument or power struggle because your friend might deny the situation.
- Don't offer simplistic solutions (i.e., “why don’t you just eat?).
- Don't make “you” statements (i.e., “you have to eat something.”).
- Don't say things like “you’re getting too skinny.” Instead, put it in health terms, i.e., “I am worried because you seem preoccupied and don’t have much energy lately.”
Step Three: Following up
- If the person declines your request to seek further help, remind yourself you have done all it is reasonable for you to do. Realize you will have made important progress in honestly sharing your concerns, providing support, and offering available information and resources.
- Eating disorders are usually not emergency situations. However, if the person is in acute medical danger (e.g., vomits daily) and/or at risk for suicide, contact help immediately.
- Don't take it personally if your friend seems uncomfortable around you. She or he is in the beginning stages of healing, and might feel exposed. Continue to be supportive.
If you’d like to discuss your concerns further, please consider talking to your PHE, RA, RD, a Bridge counselor, or Wellness and Health Promotion Services (HPS). We’d be happy to help!