Family Support for the Bulimia Sufferer

Contributor: Catherine Stuart, writer and resident expert parent for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope

girl-429380_640As you come alongside your loved one (whether it’s your child, your spouse, or a close family member) on their road to recovery from bulimia, you will find things that are in your power and things that are not.

You can’t wave a magic wand and “fix” the eating disorder, but you can certainly play a vital role in the recovery process by helping to create the best possible atmosphere for healing. Here are some helpful things you can do.

Strategies for the Hard Conversation

There’s a saying in recovery circles: You’re only as sick as your secrets. The bulimia sufferer has become ensnared by a destructive and addictive coping strategy that involves odd behaviors, which breed self-disgust, shame and secrecy. Exposing those behaviors to the light is the first step on the road to recovery.(1)

Maybe you’ve recently become aware that your loved one has an eating disorder, and you’re anxious to help. Or maybe you’ve already tried to have a conversation with your loved one, and it didn’t go well.

Many factors are influencing her to deny the eating disorder or to be unwilling to talk about it. Establishing open communication with someone about their bulimia is complicated, and complicated matters tend to go better when you’re prepared.

The more prepared and informed you are about what your loved one needs, the more likely you’ll be able to help. The person with the eating disorder can’t be expected to comprehend this right now, so you may temporarily have to think for both of you.(2)

Caring enough to have the hard conversation can make recovery achievable.

Reach out for information

Before approaching your loved one, you’ll need information to develop a strategy and avoid emotional outburst. Despite your anxiousness, take time to do your research. The right approach will vary according to:

  • The age of the person with the eating disorder
  • Your relationship
  • The severity of symptoms

Separating fact from fiction may actually help you stay calm.

  • Inform yourself about bulimia—what it is, and why some people have it. It’s much easier now than ever before to access accurate information about eating disorders.
  • Investigate available treatment options. When you know how to get the treatment process started, you’ll be able to hold a lifeline out to your loved one.

Reach Out for Support

The sooner you learn to drop any false façade and reach out to others, the better. Seek out those who have been down the same road, and pursue counseling options for yourself and others family members. Bulimia affects the entire family unit; everyone is going to need support.

Strategies for the Long Haul

Often it takes something going wrong to stop and evaluate what might need to change to better meet the needs of everyone involved.(1)

A New Normal

girl-340801_640Once your family member is in recovery, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your home life will go back to normal. In fact, it probably shouldn’t. Your willingness to adapt to a “new normal” may be the greatest contribution you can make to your loved one’s recovery.

House rules

Rules that govern family behavior are passed down from generation to generation, but an eating disorder sounds a loud and clear signal that the rules are not serving all family members well. For example, an unspoken household rule might be, “In our home, we don’t voice negative emotions.”

In recovery, your loved one will learn new, constructive skills for managing life’s challenges. As her understanding and self-awareness grows, she will likely desire to help replace the faulty rules for behavior in your household with ones that better meet everyone’s emotional needs.(2)

A Better Version of You

You can’t control the rate at which your loved one recovers. But you can learn to be in control of you—and your loved one is probably counting on it. If you are a wreck, how will you impart hope? Take steps to improve your own physical, emotional and spiritual health.

See a counselor. Learn healthier coping methods yourself. Show your loved one that you believe self-care is important by taking care of yourself. The best gift you can give your loved one is to be the best version of you.(1)

A House Undivided

If the bulimia sufferer is a child with two parents, it’s critical that parents present a united front. Your loved one is likely to make better progress in recovery if both parents are educated about bulimia, involved in treatment, and communicating well.(1)

Be Patient

Your loved one’s illness didn’t develop overnight, and recovery won’t happen overnight. Anticipate setbacks, have realistic expectations and celebrate the significance of all progress.

There is bound to be awkwardness and conflict during this challenging season. But when family members show understanding and openness to change, eating disorder recovery can usher in a time of dynamic family growth.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What is your experience with supporting your bulimia sufferer as a family?


  1. Brisman, Judith, Michele Siegel and Margot Weinshel. Surviving an Eating Disorder:Third Edition: Strategies for Family and Friends. Harper Perennial; 3 Rev Upd edition. 2009. Print.
  2. Schulherr, Susan, LCSW. Eating Disorders for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Hoboken NJ. 2008. Print.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 10th, 2014
Published on