What Should I Say? A Friend’s Role When Confronting an Eating Disorder

Where To Start Helping Someone

Signals and symbols help guide us as we navigate our way through everyday tasks. Red lights indicate that we need to stop. Green lights tell us to go. The flashing yellow light warns us to proceed with caution and stay alert.

Yet even with that guidance, we sometimes still have trouble navigating traffic. Similarly, when you notice warning signals of a friend suffering from an eating disorder, you may struggle with how to proceed.

It’s not an easy issue. It can be difficult to affect change in people, and it can be difficult to gauge how a friend will respond if you try to intercede. However, there are ways you can help.

Focusing on Specific Behaviors

According to the National Eating Disorder Information Center and National Eating Disorders Association[1], start by focusing on the specific behaviors that worry you, but avoid being critical or making accusatory statements. Below are a few tips that can help:

  • Focus on feelings and relationships, not on weight and food.
  • Tell them you are concerned about their health, but respect their privacy. Eating disorders are often a cry for help, and the individual will appreciate knowing that you are concerned.
  • Do not comment on how they look because they are already hyper aware of their body. Even if you are trying to compliment them, comments about weight or appearance only reinforce their obsession with body image and weight.
  • Make sure you do not convey any fat prejudice, or reinforce their desire to be thin.
  • Avoid power struggles about eating. Do not demand that they change. Do not criticize their eating habits. People with eating disorders are trying to be in control. They don’t feel in control of their life.
  • Avoid placing shame, blame or guilt on the person regarding their actions or attitudes. Do not use accusatory “you” statements like, “You just need to eat.” Or, “You are acting irresponsibly.”
  • Avoid giving simple solutions. For example, “If you’d just stop, then everything would be fine!”

You Can Make A Difference

Those with an eating disorder often have trouble admitting they have a problem, even to themselves. Remember, the problem isn’t with food. Food is being used to deal with painful, stressful or uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing.

It can be difficult to try to help someone with an eating disorder. The individual may push you away, but don’t get angry or frustrated. You have professional eating disorder resources that can help you navigate the red or yellow lights you may be experiencing.

Being gentle, listening closely, remaining aware of the signs and signals and acting in a supportive way will help you manage your role in being a friend to someone with an eating disorder.

[1] http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-should-i-say