Supporting a Family Member or Friend
This handout was written to help you support a family member or friend who has an eating disorder. Reading it will give you information about this problem and how you can best deal with it. If you have any questions or concerns about eating disorders, please call the numbers listed at the end of this handout.
What Is an Eating Disorder and How Can I Recognize an Eating Disorder?
What are Common Eating Disorders?
Persons with anorexia have an obsessive struggle to lose weight. They have a very distorted image of their bodies and struggle with dieting to achieve what they consider to be ideal figures. Signs which will help you recognize anorexia nervosa include:
- Feeling fat when actually very underweight
- Stringent dieting
- Excessive exercising
- Loss of menstrual periods in females
- Changes in mood and/or performance
- Preoccupation with thoughts of food and dieting
Persons with bulimia have problems with binge eating and have little sense of control over their urges to overeat. These binges are usually followed by fear, an intense feeling of lack of control, and anger that is usually directed toward themselves. In bulimia, binge eating is followed by some way to rid the body of the foods that were eaten. Signs which will help you recognize bulimia nervosa include:
- Laxative, diet pill, or diuretic use
- Eating excessive amounts of food in a brief period of time
- Self-induced vomiting
- Obsessive concerns about weight and body image
- Periodic restrictive eating
- Excessive exercise
- Preoccupation with food
- Depression and fatigue
Persons who compulsively overeat eat large amounts of food much of the time with little sense of control over their urges to overeat. Eating is often a way to psychologically soothe or nurture themselves. Signs which will help you recognize compulsive overeating include:
- Preoccupation with food
- Social avoidance or isolation
- A feeling of lack of control
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
The causes of eating disorders are complex and may include some or all of the following:
- Biochemical imbalances in the brain
- Social/cultural influences to achieve an expected body image
- Personal psychological issues such as perfectionism, fear of rejection, loneliness, low self-esteem, and inability to recognize and/or express one's feelings
- Family struggles or conflicts
- Performance expectations for high risk sports such as gymnastics, modeling, dancing, and wrestling
- Major stressors or life changes such as family discord, death of a parent or loved one, a broken love relationship, ridicule or abuse by others
What Can Be Done?
Prompt treatment is important. A number of strategies have been successful for treating eating disorders. Often treatment is most successful in combination. Some of these treatments are:
- Individual psychotherapy to help ease anxiety and depression, and to promote assertiveness and independence
- Family therapy
- Group therapy to help gain insights and exchange ideas and support each other
- Drug therapy to help ease depression or anxieties
- Nutritional and general education to challenge unhealthy food myths and construct and support a healthy eating plan.
- Correcting medical abnormalities
- Behavioral therapy
How Can I Help?
1. Show respect for the person as someone with special strengths as well as limitations. We all have our strong and weak points. Respect means encouraging expression of the person's values, ideas, and standards even if they are not like your own. Do not impose your own values, ideas or standards. Your support of the person's independence and individuality is helpful.
2. Share how you have grown and changed over the years. Tell how you plan and act to reach personal goals. Let the person know that growth and learning is often achieved through making mistakes.
3. Emphasize the person's accomplishments. Also praise the person's efforts.
4. Encourage unconditional self-acceptance and self-love.
5. Support the person's feeling of self-control. Keep in mind everyone has needs for privacy. Rummaging through rooms, reading personal letters, journals, or diaries without permission violates that privacy and interferes with development of a trusting relationship.
6. Do not talk about the person's appearance. Avoid discussing slenderness as
7. Have a variety of nutritional foods available. Set a good example for healthy eating. Eat in a relaxed manner without talking about how much food is eaten, calories, or weight.
8. Join in fun activities with the person. You may help increase the person's sense of well-being by offering to share in activities such as biking, swimming, hiking, movies, or trips to art displays, libraries, or museums.
9. Make time for communication. Sharing and listening are always helpful in promoting understanding and improved relationships. Do not talk about your personal problems such as marital, financial, or work-related. Instead talk about these with another person or professional.
10. Avoid the urge to try to manage the eating disorder or symptoms, food issues. Your urge to manage the eating disorder symptoms including food choices, may be strong at times. Learn to recognize the results of such efforts as well as the positive effects of management of symptoms by the person with the eating disorder.
What Can I Do for Myself?
1. Do not criticize or blame yourself or others. Give compliments. Accentuate the positive.
2. Direct your questions to the attention of professionals.
3. Avoid the stress of a struggle over eating disorder symptoms. Seek support from the professional staff treating the problem.
4. You may find family therapy and support groups ease your anxiety and help you grow as a person.
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 08/01/2013
Copyright © 08/01/2013 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4470
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