How to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder Who is Resistant to Treatment

Woman Struggling with an eating disorder

Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Representative for Timberline Knolls and Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation

The reality of an eating disorder is that often the illness serves the sufferer in some way. These individuals have created an entire life construct that is held up by the beams of their disordered eating behavior. The idea of getting treatment and therefore removing those beams means their current, meticulously built shelter comes crashing down around them.

It can be a tremendously frightening prospect, even if it is needed for full and lasting recovery. What those who struggle don’t realize in the darkest moments of their despair is that treatment helps pull down the tent they have erected and replaces it with a beautiful palace of freedom, promise and healing.

This fear of losing the false sense of safety, security and routine offered under the “tent” of the eating disorder is usually what creates intense resistance to treatment. Change is difficult for anyone, even more so when disordered behaviors have been entrenched for years.

So how does a loved one best support and encourage someone crippled by fear and resistant to the care they so desperately need? Here are a few ways:

Practice Acceptance Along With Concern

At the end of the day, individuals must choose recovery for themselves. And they must choose it again, every day, throughout the process. It is a daily commitment. Therefore, the person must see, feel and want the need for treatment in order to have lasting recovery.

Just because you want them to go to treatment doesn’t mean they will; what’s more you can’t do the work for them. As loved ones and supporters, we must communicate our concern with an underlying acceptance that they may or may not listen or heed our words.

Practice Unconditional Love

Throughout the process of encouraging a loved one to get treatment, love and support must not become conditional on whether or not they go or accept help. Often, those who struggle with eating disorders have suffered trauma, abuse, abandonment and feel misunderstood on their quest for love and significance.

Helping them to know you are there for them – to talk, listen, encourage, pray and support – means they will be able to trust you with their deepest needs.

They will be able to open their heart and share their fears with you more easily when they know you are not there to judge, but to love them, unconditionally. It is this trust that opens the door to communication that helps break down resistance to care.

Practice Persistence

Just like the one struggling through recovery, loved ones supporting them must never give up – on them, on treatment, on recovery, on love. Sometimes a person may need several rounds of treatment. Relapse is a real possibility. Yet, persistence is key to a life of healing.

Persist with grace and forgiveness. Persist in emphasizing the need for professional help. Persist in focusing on the next small step toward recovery, not the end goal. Persist in hope and in prayer that your loved one will step out in faith, rather than retreat in fear. Not only does it build character in you, but it sets a wonderful example for the person you are encouraging to get treatment.

Fighting resistance to care sometimes feels like pushing a large boulder uphill. It is not easy and takes work. However, by practicing acceptance, unconditional love and persistence, fear does break down and faith can take its place.

That faith is often feeble at first, which is why the support of friends and family is so important. With a strong treatment team and support system in place, construction on the new palace of their life can begin.


Kirsten+Haglund+HeadshotAbout the author: Kirsten Haglund continues to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on numerous college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders. She is also the Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 25, 2017.
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