How to help a friend living with an eating disorder

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Watching a friend or family member struggle with an eating disorder can be very stressful. You may be worried about them and want to help.

If you think someone you care about has an eating disorder, here’s what you can do:

•    Be there

Be physically there. Reach out by giving the person a call. Offer to go for a walk or do something fun together. This will help them know that they’re not alone.

•    Talk to them

If you want to tell the person that you’re worried, speak in a way that is gentle, non-judgmental and understanding. Try a question like, “You seem different lately — do you want to talk about it?” If they don’t want to discuss it, don’t take it personally. It takes a lot of courage to open up about something like an eating disorder. If they aren’t ready yet, that’s OK.

Avoid pressuring the person to change. Only they can decide when they’re ready and it’s important to respect their own pace. Recovering from an eating disorder can take time and many steps.

If talking seems too difficult, try writing a letter to let the person know how you feel. You could tell them that you’re concerned and why. You could include what you love about them and the strengths you see in them. You could let them know that you’re there for them if they ever want to talk or just spend time together.

•    Learn about eating disorders

It may be helpful to learn more about eating disorders so that you’ll have a better understanding of what your friend or family member is going through. You can always call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868 if you would like to find resources.

•    Don’t focus on food

People often think that eating disorders are all about food or a person’s weight or appearance. In reality, eating disorders are not about food — they’re much more connected to how a person feels about themselves on the inside and to things that are going on in their life.

Avoid talking about food with your friend or family member. Try not to ask what they’ve eaten and don’t insist that they eat. Also try to avoid comments about body image. Instead, try to focus on the person’s inner positive qualities. Help your friend or family member to understand that these are in no way connected to how they look on the outside.

•    Reflect on your own body image

Achieving a healthy body image yourself will help you to be a positive role model for others. Try not to criticize your own body or the bodies of other people, especially in front of others. Instead, try to focus on body acceptance and recognize that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

•    Encourage them to talk to a safe adult 

If your friend or family member confides in you that they have an eating disorder, don’t try to help them on your own. Encourage them to see their doctor or talk to a counsellor (you can offer to go with them if that would make them more comfortable). You can also give your friend or family member the number for Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868.

•    Take care of yourself

When someone you care about is going through a difficult time, it can be stressful for you, too. Remember to take care of yourself — the kinder you treat yourself, the more you’ll be able to give to others. This could mean talking with someone you trust about how the situation is affecting you. It could also mean taking a break from the situation if you need to. It’s not up to you to make your friend or family member get better. This is a journey that they must go through themselves. All you can do is be there for support along the way if they need you.