Families & Eating Disorders

An Eating Disorder – What Happens Now?

When you realize that someone you love may be struggling with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, naturally you want to know more about it. And because you care, you also want to understand what they are experiencing so that you can be as supportive as you can throughout their recovery.

You may already know that anorexia and bulimia are complex and confusing illnesses. Now that you are past the initial shock of discovery,  you may be experiencing feelings of anxiety, guilt, anger, and frustration, all understandable reactions. Seeing a loved one suffer from an eating disorder is very frightening and difficult. We know it’s not easy.

What happens now? First, understand that the illness did not develop overnight, and that recovery will not happen overnight. Second, know that there is reason to have hope – with dedication to treatment, recovery is attainable.

Today We Know Much More

When singer Karen Carpenter died of anorexia, it was at a time when many doctors lacked the awareness and education needed to diagnose and treat victims of eating disorders. Today we know much more about these illnesses, what causes them, how to recognize the symptoms earlier, and the steps required for recovery.

Even though you may find it difficult to understand, your loved one finds security in their eating disorder. To its victims, the illness is a powerful and misguided coping mechanism. But with treatment, enough time, and lots of love, you can look forward with hope to a day when your loved one will likely be able to break the stranglehold of this illness.

You can play a critically important role in the eating disorders recovery process. Your knowledge-based appropriate actions and support can be a tremendous source of strength and comfort to your loved one.

Ten Ways Families Can Help

1.Learn about eating disorders: To begin, you can help your loved one by getting your own emotions under better control. Educate yourself about anorexia and bulimia and you will almost certainly feel less anxiety and fear. Sometimes the unknown frightens us the most.

2.Learn about treatment for eating disorders:Learn about different modalities of treatment: medical care, medication, therapy and counseling, and dietary counseling. Learn about levels of care and different programs: inpatient care, residential care, partial hospitalization, and outpatient care. Sometimes intensive or inpatient care becomes necessary.

3.Seek professional help: Don’t try to deal with this problem alone. Find out what needs to be done, and discuss options with eating disorder specialists and family members. Do all you can to stabilize your loved one’s medical condition and prepare them for appropriate eating disorder treatment center options.

4.Help your loved one recognize the problem:Those suffering from an eating disorder cannot begin changing their beliefs and behaviors until they admit they are struggling. When you gently confront your loved one about your observations and concerns, be prepared for strong reactions. Be compassionate yet firm in your resolve. Be prepared for resistance. You will probably be rebuffed many times as you encourage your loved one to admit to and take responsibility for their eating disorder and related difficulties.

5.Have meaningful communication:The reality of an eating disorder is that the underlying issues are about pain, emotional suffering, and self-conflict- not food. Helping your loved one to discover these emotions or to begin to talk honestly about their pain is a very important step toward help and recovery.

6.Interact in ways that do not center on the eating disorder:Express your love consistently, not just when they are doing well with food or with gaining weight. Identify other ways of expressing your approval and affection that have nothing to do with weight or with the foods being eaten or rejected.

7.Develop a support network:Find people you can talk with openly about your feelings and experiences, your fears and frustrations, and your plan of action. Contact local mental health professionals to learn if there are support groups in your area for friends and family of people with eating disorders. Participation in such a group may be very helpful. Talking with people whose family members have recovered from an eating disorder can bring hope and encouragement to you during difficult or discouraging times.

8.Be a good role model: Be a good example with food and when discussing food or weight-related issues. This may call for changes in your attitudes, eating habits, and activities. Consulting with a dietitian and a therapist may help you determine necessary changes in your own attitudes and behaviors around food and weight.

9.Don’t blame yourself: Take ownership for your weaknesses and frailties and make genuine efforts to change and improve. More importantly, take stock of your talents, gifts, and resources, and get to work providing love, support, and open invitations for your loved one to come into a safe relationship with you as they are ready. Don’t let your guilt, insecurity, or fear get in the way of being actively involved in your loved one’s life.

10.Take care of yourself and be patient: If you are exhausted emotionally or physically, you will not be able to provide the emotional support your loved one needs the way you would like to. Those with eating disorders often do not know how to get their needs met and often do not know how to take good care of themselves. If you take good care of yourself, you will have more energy in your efforts to help them, and you will be teaching by example something your loved one needs to learn. Set aside time to care for your own social and emotional needs.

  • An adult concerned about someone with an eating disorder can call on insurance and a community mental health system. All this can seem daunting for a 15 year old worried about a family member. If the family member who the teen thinks might be struggling is a sibling, usually the best place to start is a parent.
  • If you are the parent of a son who has an eating disorder, you have likely experienced a myriad of emotions and questions through the process. Eating disorders in males are continually being understood, thanks to advocacy, awareness, and research, but the many stereotypes that surround these psychiatric illnesses can be painful and confusing.
  • The father-daughter relationship is one that is unique and unlike any other. A man’s influence in his daughter’s life can help shape her self-confidence, image of herself, and self-worth. As a young girl flourishes and develops into a woman, her father has the potential to help her grow into a person that respects herself throughout her lifetime, as well as learn how to have healthy relationships with other men.
  • If you are a new mother who is struggling with poor body image, it is important to reflect on what your expectations may be for yourself.

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 25, 2012

Page last updated: June 12, 2012
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Information on Eating Disorders