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How Can I Help? A Guide For Family and Friends

By Sarah, F.E.A.S.T. Volunteer

When a friend or a loved one is suffering we want to help. Often it is difficult to know how, so we say, “Iʼm here if you need me” or “Let me know if thereʼs anything I can do?” Of course it is lovely to know that people are there for you but it can be difficult for people to ask or to even know how friends and family can help. So here is our rundown of things you can do for families who are going through the journey of an eating disorder.

1. Eating disorders are not a choice. I think this is one of the most important messages. Eating disorders are serious genetic, biological, brain based illness with a psychological component. An eating disorder is predominantly caused by genetics and is triggered by environment. Our kids cannot simply just eat. They are suffering so much and it is important that we remember that at all times.

2. Bear with us whilst we batten down the hatches. The early stages of refeeding and monitoring someone with an eating disorder are all consuming. It is a 24/7 job. Food shopping, meal preparation, food monitoring, supervision of bathroom visits, therapy appointments. Some are still awake through the night ensuring their child is not exercising. We may disappear for a time. We may not socialise for a time whilst we learn and adjust to the new role we have in our childʼs life. Please donʼt forget about us. A simple call or a text message saying ʻIʼm thinking of you todayʼ can mean the world.

3. We are too exhausted to explain this illness. Please donʼt ask. Eating disorders are a very complicated illness. The causes, the triggers, the treatment are hard explain to someone outside of the family unit. If you truly want to understand I will add some book recommendations, podcasts and articles the the end of this article that should help you gain a better insight.

4. Treatment choices are complicated and you can be sure we are researching and scrutinising our choices. Please donʼt question those choices. Again, it can be hard to explain. It is also likely that our choices have come from a combination of expert advise combined with an instinct you can only gain when you live with that person.

5. Try not to give unsolicited advise. Often we want to offer words of advise as it makes us feel like we are helping. The truth is we often just need someone to connect with us. A simple “this must be so hard for all of you” can comfort us much more than “have you tried…”

6. Be our greatest cheerleader. This illness is exhausting and it can often take years to treat. As carers, we are exhausted. Some days giving up can feel so tempting. Help us. Remind us how far we have come. Tell us we are doing an amazing job and to hang in there. Donʼt let us forget that this day or this week is a bad one but it will get better and until it does you are here with us.

7. Donʼt stop asking how our loved ones are doing. It takes years to be free of an eating disorder and often when our children are weight restored its easy to think that is the end of the story. The truth is this can actually be the hardest time as a carer. As they regain the weight, they have lost the one thing that was bringing them comfort, so often the fight to feed them can be harder. Their mental health can decline whilst their bodies recover and learn to adjust. This can be a lonely journey and it helps to know we are not forgotten.

8. “How could this have happened?” This can be a very triggering comment. Often our children have been suffering undetected for a long time. This illness makes them masters at hiding the truth. What caused this? We may have no idea. or we might have a theory, but really its an intricate web of genetics and environment and very hard to explain.

9. Please donʼt talk about your latest workout or diet. This can be hard to hear for both sufferer and carer. Our children are generally advised not to exercise whilst in recovery so hearing about your 5k run is hard. Comments about not hitting your stand goal on your watch or how many steps you have done today even when part of a well balanced approach to health are also very triggering. As carers we may not have the time or energy to exercise and this subject can make us feel bad. Many parents will eat increasing amounts of food in order to support their children and gain weight in the process. So again hearing about your new diet or your fear that youʼve gained weight is hard for us. I think many of us find this a triggering conversation for many years. Many of us donʼt ever want to return to these topics. Please be careful.

10. “Iʼm so hungry” or “Wow that was a big meal, Iʼm so full” are difficult words to hear for our children who are fighting to acknowledge that they are full or are often required to eat so much that their stomachs physically hurt.

11. “I had such a big lunch today.” “I havenʼt been to the gym all week, I feel so lazy.” “Iʼm going to skip lunch today because Iʼm having a big meal tonight.” Please, these are hard to hear when your day is built around either resisting the urge to binge or being fed large amounts of food at regular intervals.

12. “You look great.” In the mind of a sufferer, you are saying “Youʼve gained weight.” If you want to offer a compliment try to be more specific, such as “I love that top”, “The colour really suits you”, “You are so funny”, ” You make me laugh”, “I always enjoy talking to you”, and “You have some very interesting ideas.”

13. If you are offered a slice of cake. the answer is always “Oh yes, please. Lovely.” Never “Oh I shouldnʼt, but go on then.”

14. If a sufferer is coming over for dinner,  please donʼt ask “What would you like to eat?” The answer in the mind of a sufferer is a screaming NOTHING! It is better to either have prearranged with the carers what they will need or to simply serve the same food as everyone else.

15. If you are hosting a family gathering or a party, check what you can do to help. Is there a meal that you can cook that is easier for them to eat {that everyone can eat together}? If it is a buffet style meal, what can you put on the table that the sufferer is comfortable with eating? Do they want you to discreetly portion the food in the kitchen before its served? Can you provide a safe space for them to go and eat if it all gets too much? If a sufferer does have to leave the table and eat in a private space, it is important that no one at the table reacts. Our sufferers donʼt want to cause a scene. They donʼt want to upset the happy event and can feel huge amounts of guilt and shame if that happens.

16. Our lives are consumed by food. If weʼre not shopping, we are cooking or prepping or supervising or planning. So when the evening rolls in the last thing we feel like doing is cooking. I canʼt think of anything better than a friend dropping off a meal once in a while or offering to collect some groceries.

17.  Socialising is hard. We are on a schedule that would rival the most demanding toddler routine. Finding time to meet friends can be very hard. Try to offer to meet outside of meal times or understand we might only have an hour for a quick drink. Making time to meet friends also means a great deal of planning and effort for carers so please try not to cancel or arrive late. Also understand that our households are very volatile and we never know when a meal might go badly and we will need to cancel.

18. This illness affects the entire family and siblings are often having a very tough time as well. How can you help them? Sleepovers, play dates, special trips or helping to take them to after school activities can provide them with a much need break from the chaos.

19. Can you help break the isolation? Our children are suffering and they often want to hide away from the world. Can you help? They may not want to listen to their parents so maybe a friend or family member asking to take them to an art class or to the cinema might be better received. Please be mindful that activities involving food might not be appropriate.

20. Eating disorders love when our kids feel isolated and alone. Please help your children understand that our children find socialising so hard. Encourage them not to give up on their friend because they donʼt ever want to go out. Sometimes just being invited is enough even if the answer is generally no. Try to suggest activities or play dates that wonʼt involve exercise or food. Maybe invite them over just for an hour as they may be trying to juggle a very busy feeding schedule.

I hope this helps. I hope this makes you feel empowered to show up for your family and friends, to now offer practical help and support in a meaningful way; and also, thank you. Thank you for caring enough to take the time to understand the needs of a carer. Your love and support is so important to us. They say it takes a village to raise a child; and right now, we need that village.

Resources:
Books to help gain an authentic perspective:
Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown
Eating With Your Anorexic – A Motherʼs Memoir by Laura Collins
Decoding Anorexia by Carrie Arnold

Books That help You Understand The Recovery Process:
Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders by Eva Musby
When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder by Laura Muhlheim
The Inside Scoop on ED Recovery by Colleen Reichmann and Jennifer Rollin

Videos:

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10 Comments

  1. sam

    This is a fantastic resource. Thank you so much!
    Can your next article be “How Can I Help? Guide for Medical Professionals” similar list for doctors, nurses and therapiats who “mean well” but out of ignorance say and do harmful things!

  2. Susan

    Very complete and very useful. I hope all who care for the ED sufferer and her/his family take the time to read, and think about, this article.

  3. Patricia Henderson

    Good day, it appears that the books mentioned above have an error. Tabitha Farrar wrote, Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover!: Anorexia recovery for the determined adult and Colleen Reichmann and Jennifer Rollin wrote
    The Inside Scoop on Eating Disorder Recovery

  4. Susan Carter

    This in formation was very helpful. As a grandmother of an ED child, it gave me the correct words to offer comfort and support without the triggers as mentioned. I have shared this information with family members so they are comfortable talking to the ED person. Thank you!!!

  5. Sonja Williamson

    Thank you beyond words. I am the grandmother of a 15 year old ED girl. Yes, this does affect the whole family (Mom (my daughter), older brother and Dad. I don’t know what they (and us grandparents) could have done if our daughter had not found you. Recovery is developing, albeit slowly. You guys are lifesavers…caregivers beyond belief. Thanks again.

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