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Supporting Someone You Think Might Have an Eating Disorder

Dr Victoria Mountford is a clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia – Center for Wellbeing, and specialises in the treatment of people with eating disorders. She has co-authored three books on eating disorders, including a self-help guide Beating Your Eating Disorder - A Cognitive-Behavioural Self-Help Guide for Adult Sufferers and their Carers.

We asked her how we can best support someone we feel might have an eating disorder..

How to support someone that you think might have an eating disorder It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week and while we may be more used to hearing the term ‘eating disorder’ and be aware of people such as Princess Diana, Demi Lovato or Russell Brand who have talked publicly about their eating disorders, what is it like to discover that a loved one has an eating disorder? How can you go about supporting them? Whether it’s a partner, child, sibling or friend, it’s likely that the eating disorder will have a profound effect on you and your loved one. Here are some important steps in supporting a loved one with an eating disorder.

1. Educate yourself. Eating disorders are disabling and distressing conditions which often have a major impact on the individual’s physical and emotional health as well as their relationships and work or school. Despite this, people with eating disorders often face misunderstanding or stigma. Eating disorders are not about vanity or wanting to be thin, but the person’s best attempt to manage challenges they are experiencing. What may initially feel rewarding or safe soon becomes controlling and frightening. Eating disorders don’t get better without help, so one of the most important things you can do is to encourage your friend or family member to seek professional help.

One of the most common fears I hear from parents is that they are to blame for their child’s eating disorder. In fact, research tells us that there is no one factor that causes an eating disorder and blaming yourself can lead to guilt or anxiety which makes it harder for you to support your loved one. Your loved one is also not to blame for the eating disorder.

1. Understand their perspective. Many of my patients tell me that having an eating disorder is a very lonely place to be. Eating disorders limit social and emotional connectedness, which in turn strengthens the eating disorder. Of course not everybody with an eating disorder feels the same, however the individual may have mixed feelings about treatment or recovery because they value some parts of their eating disorder. For example they may believe it helps them to stay thin, to be in control or to feel safe. So, talking about change and recovery can at times feel threatening. I sometimes see parents who are overjoyed when their child gains weight, yet the young person themselves is distraught. Try to empathize and validate your young person’s feelings, even if you don’t share them. Acknowledge how hard this is for them. Making the wrong assumption can increase the sufferer’s distress or feeling of isolation.

2. Watch out for enabling behaviours. Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be very challenging - it’s probably not something we ever thought we’d be doing. Particularly when the eating disorder first emerges or is discovered, there can be a period of crisis. Sometimes we inadvertently slip into patterns of behaviour that reinforce or strengthen the eating disorder. We call these ‘accommodating or enabling’ behaviours. For example, agreeing it is OK not to finish everything on the meal plan or spending hours searching different supermarkets because your child insists on only one brand of yoghurt. Although this may reduce your child’s distress in the short term, in the long term it serves to maintain and increase anxiety about normal eating.

3. Support for you. Many people tell us this is the hardest thing they have done. You may be very worried about your loved one’s health, angry or frustrated at arguments or perceived lack of progress, powerless in the face of the eating disorder, exhausted, and concerned about other family members or work commitments. Think about accessing your own support - family or friends, a carer’s group or internet support. If your child has siblings, try to be as open and honest as possible, as eating disorders tend to control the whole family, not just the sufferer. Although looking after your loved one will be your priority, make time for your interests and other relationships. Recovery from an eating disorder can take approximately 6 months to a year or longer - this is a marathon, not a sprint and you need to pace yourself.


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