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How to Help Someone Who Has Eating Disorder

Updated on January 26, 2011

The first step toward helping someone who has an eating disorder is gaining an understanding of what can and cannot be done.

Knowledge can lead to a better understanding, for example, of what lies beneath certain behaviors—especially the frightening ones—that are very often associated with eating dis­orders. It is a tremendous relief to know that these behaviors stem from the victims' inner conflicts and that they do not represent willful attacks on the peo­ple who love them.

Gaining a more personal, firsthand understand­ing of an eating disorder is just as valuable. Loved ones should visit a few support groups for people who have eating disorders, either alone or with the person with the eating disorder. Or, they might spend some time visiting various Web sites and chat rooms to get a better sense of what the disorders are all about.

Without both factual and firsthand knowledge, it is difficult to understand these irrational disor­ders, especially when so many misconceptions about them exist. For example, the idea that eating disor­ders are just about "eating," or that disordered behavior is within the control of its victims, is simply not true—yet these ideas persist.

Calming down

But sometimes knowledge is not enough. For one thing, just knowing about eating disorders will not help your loved one let go of his, nor will it give you the power to control his behavior. What is needed is a profound change in attitude.

First of all, intense emotional responses to life-threatening illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia need to be modified. For example, parents very often react to feelings of helplessness with guilt, ter­ror, and despair; or they rage over behavior that seems so simple to fix: "If only she would just eat! But instead, she makes everyone around her miser­able!" These reactions are understandable, but to be really helpful, loved ones need to get past them and truly accept the situation.

Telling someone who has anorexia or bulimia that she is "willful" or "selfish" will only backfire and reinforce the negative views of herself that this per­son already has. Understand that what most of us perceive as obstinacy in a person who has anorexia is in reality an outgrowth of her terror of gaining weight. And blaming her for "failing" to seek treat­ment will only worsen her feelings of shame and guilt.

Understanding that your loved one is not doing anything to you also is critical: "If she can't help her­self and won't let others help her, why does she hurt me so much?" a parent asks. What this parent needs to remember is that her daughter is not trying to hurt her; in fact, she can't help what she's doing.

First steps

An eating disorder may be clear to everyone but the person who has it. Rather than tell that person that he has bulimia or anorexia, it's better to help him discover it for himself.

What to do over the long run

Staying calm and upbeat is important because vic­tims of eating disorders need to be treated gently, patiently, and with a positive attitude. In fact, work­ing to maintain this kind of attitude is an important action in itself, one that can help lessen feelings of despair and helplessness. What is not required is smothering or caretaking. Instead, matter-of-factly.

I accept the realities of the situation and move as calmly and thoughtfully as possible toward maintaining a hopeful and helpful environment.

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