When it comes to speaking to your loved one, try to stay relaxed and calm. This is often easier said than done! But it is important that you try to remain calm, and if you feel the situation is becoming heated, suggest you all take ten minutes to calm down, and then resume your conversation. Your loved one may not want to hear what you have to say or may react with anger or defensiveness.
They might laugh off your worries, or come up with reasons and excuses to explain it all, making you doubt yourself and your concerns. Stay strong and follow your instincts. If you think there is something wrong, there usually is.
Remember that denial is a main feature of eating disorders, and people suffering are often scared of others discovering their secret as they feel ashamed, or they may feel scared that others will try to make them stop.
Prepare what you want to say
You might feel nervous or anxious about raising this issue with your loved one, and this often makes us forget what we wanted to say. So before you speak to them, write down your main concerns and worries and remember that it is ok to take it with you as a prompt.
Maybe print some information off the internet to have with you, such as our signs and symptoms section, so you can highlight to your loved one that they are displaying symptoms which make you concerned.
Start by stating your own feelings of worry and concerns for them, and be specific in what they are, such as,
‘We are very worried about you. You haven’t eaten dinner all week, and you have spent two hours in the gym everyday. We are concerned about you because we love you. We are not angry at what you are doing, we only want to help and support you.’.
Plan the time
Pick a suitable time, when you know you will be able to talk to your loved one in private and without interruptions. Approach your loved one at a time when you know they are usually calm, and try to keep all discussions away from times involving food, as tensions and anxieties are already running high.
Maybe once they have settled down for the night, or just before bed.
Decide if you want to do it alone, or if you would like another family member or friend there for support. However try to keep it small as you don’t want your loved one to feel attacked, or as if everyone is ganging up on them.
Avoid critical or accusatory language
Try to convey your worries and concerns in a loving and non-confrontational way. Try to remain calm, focused and respectful. Remember, although the eating disorder may be tearing your family apart, your loved one did not choose to have it. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions.
Blaming them or listing all the terrible things that are caused by the eating disorder is not going to make them feel good about themselves. They are more than likely already suffering from low self-esteem, and hearing negative things like that are only going to make them feel worse about themselves, and cling to the eating disorder even more.
Avoid conversations about food and weight
Your loved one may constantly try to bring the conversation back to food/calories/weight/shape. Try to avoid getting sucked into these conversations. Instead try to focus on feelings.
For example, ‘You seem very anxious/sad/angry, maybe it would be helpful for you to talk to someone about those feelings?’
Have a plan of what to do next
Whether or not your loved one is receptive to what you are saying, it is important that anyone suffering from an eating disorder is under the care of a doctor.
Arrange for your loved one to see the GP. If they are over 18, offer to go with them as support, or to talk to the GP in case they are too embarrassed.
If the GP is concerned that your loved one may be displaying signs of an eating disorder they will most likely make a referral into CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) or to the Eating Disorder Service. Or alternatively they might want to monitor your loved one for a while.
If you are not happy with the plan your GP has given you, do not be afraid to say so. You know your loved one best, and parents/carers often have to fight on behalf of the sufferer.
The alternative to being seen by the Health Trust is to pay for your loved one to see a private counsellor or therapist. Talk each of these options through with your loved one, and try to come up with a plan which suits both parties.
Have realistic expectations
Just because you have outlined your worries, don’t expect your loved one to begin eating normally. You wouldn’t expect someone with cancer to miraculously get better without support and treatment, the same goes for eating disorders. Recovery can be a long and difficult road, and they will need your support every step of the way.
Try to see things from their perspective, ask about how they feel, what they feel afraid of etc.
Think of something you are scared of, now imagine having to do that that several times a day. That’s what you are asking someone with an eating disorder to do. Alcoholics and drug users never need to see or use alcohol or drugs again in order to live, but people with eating disorders have to face their demons every single day in order to stay alive. For this reason eating disorders can be seen as one of the most difficult illnesses to overcome.
Make sure you are supported
Eating disorders can take over families, impacting on everyone in the family. It can be very exhausting and draining for the parents/carers of someone suffering an eating disorder. It is therefore essential that you have support of your own. Set aside time to spend alone with your partner away from the eating disorder, even if all you can get is a 15 minute walk around the block. Spend time with people who you can talk to openly about your situation, without feeling judged, or seek out some counselling support for yourself.
It can be very hard to make time away from your loved one, you may feel guilty leaving them (or they may make you feel guilty), it might be hard to find the time, but in order to support and be strong for your loved one, you need time on your own to get back to being yourself.
Not only will this give you some much needed rest and space away, it also models self-care to your loved one, something which people with eating disorders struggle to do.
If it all goes wrong
You may have stayed calm and respectful, and put across all your points, and your loved one still reacted in an angry, defensive way. Don’t panic. It may take them a little time to feel comfortable talking about what is going on for them, or admitting there is a problem. The work you did will not have gone unnoticed, and hopefully it will have planted a seed.
Having approached them with your concerns in a loving, compassionate way, without judgment or blame, you have made it much more likely that your loved one will come back and talk to you when they are ready.
You could broach the subject again with them after a while, and see how they respond.
Remember you are not alone
Parents and carers of loved ones with eating disorders often feel very isolated and alone. Unfortunately eating disorders are still an illness shrouded in shame, and many families feel embarrassed, and try to deal with the illness alone. Support and help is vital for everyone in the family, so please reach out.
How we can help
FightED offers courses to support parents and carers who have a loved one with an eating disorder.