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How to help a friend or family member who struggles with an eating disorder?

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Many people, especially young individuals, can be vulnerable to eating disorders. This post is dedicated to friends or relatives who know a young person struggling with an eating disorder or suspect that someone they know might be facing this challenge. Firstly, I want to briefly share the reasons why young people can be vulnerable. By knowing and discussing the reasons behind this vulnerability, we can enhance our ability to connect, accept, and empathize with the young person. Subsequently, I will provide practical tips on how to best support them.

A girl eating disorder eating only salad how to help
How to help a relative with an eating disorder

Why are young people vulnerable to eating disorders?

Biological factors.

Adolescents experience substantial development of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, which may not fully mature until the mid-20s. Thus, young people may struggle with regulating their impulses and making sound decisions about maintaining healthy habits. Furthermore, the limbic system, involved in emotional processing, also undergoes changes during adolescence. Emotional regulation skills are still developing, making young people more susceptible to intense emotional experiences. They may turn to disordered eating behaviors as a way to cope with or control their emotions. Furthermore, during adolescence, the brain's perceptual systems are still developing, including how individuals perceive their own bodies. This process can be influenced by external factors such as societal beauty standards and media portrayals. Distorted body image perception can contribute to body dissatisfaction and a greater risk of developing eating


brain pictures showing that young peoples brain can work differently making them susceptible to eating disorders
Young people's brain functioning can make them vulnerable to eating disorder behaviors.

Environmental factors.

These biological factors are often increased by the external environment. Adolescents are highly influenced by their peers, and this can extend to behaviors related to body image and food. Engaging in disordered eating patterns may be reinforced within social circles, creating a normative influence that further perpetuates the risk. Adolescence is a time when young people experience significant physical and psychological changes. They become more aware of their bodies and may feel pressure to conform to societal beauty standards, which often emphasize thinness. Media, peer influence, and social media can exacerbate these pressures, leading to body dissatisfaction and a desire for extreme weight control. Adolescence is a period of identity formation, and individuals may struggle with self-esteem and a sense of belonging. For some, controlling their food intake becomes a way to establish a sense of identity or cope with feelings of inadequacy. Family dynamics and home environment can play a role in the development of eating disorders. Factors like perfectionism, high achievement expectations, a family history of eating disorders, or a focus on appearance can contribute to a young person's vulnerability.

Young people vulnrable to peer pressure
Peer pressure to fit certain beauty standards can reinforce eating disorders.

What to bear in mind when your relative has or might have an eating disorder?

  1. Do not offer diet, eating, exercise, weight, or shape advice. If you are not a professional or doctor, it is important to recognize that you may not have a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes the right or wrong way to eat. Additionally, what may be considered suitable eating advice for a healthy individual may not necessarily apply to someone who is struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. Providing misguided advice can have a negative impact on them. I have heard instances where individuals with eating disorders have received advice that has been proven to exacerbate their condition.

  2. Genuinely listen and empathize with their story. Try to empathize with your relative and acknowledge the challenges they have faced. Take the time to have open and non-judgmental conversations where they feel safe discussing their experiences. Let them know that you are there to support them and that you understand the difficulties they have endured. Remember that recovery from an eating disorder is a complex process, and having someone who listens and validates their feelings can make a significant difference.

  3. Refrain from complimenting the results or outcomes of their eating disorder. It is common for individuals experiencing anorexia or other eating disorders to receive compliments on their appearance, which unfortunately reinforces the illness and may make it seem desirable or sought after. Instead, if you notice someone has lost weight, especially in a short amount of time, express your concern and inquire about their well-being. Similarly, if someone has gained weight and quickly achieved a very muscular shape, ask them if they pursued these changes in a healthy manner that did not harm their body. By showing genuine concern and prioritizing their overall well-being, you can contribute to a more supportive environment.

  4. Bear in mind that someone may appear to be a normal weight and still be struggling with an eating disorder. Therefore, assuming that someone does not have an eating disorder based on their physical appearance can be misleading and inaccurate.

  5. Be a supportive friend by actively including them in your life. Show genuine care and interest in their well-being beyond their eating disorder. Through your friendship, you can help them feel supported, valued, and seen as a whole person.

Showing warmth and friendliness to the person with eating disorders
Being a supportive friend can help a person with an eating disorder.

6. Be prepared for the possibility of denial about eating disorders from the person and continue to encourage them to seek help while ensuring they are on a good path. If you witness someone in the throes of their eating disorder, it is natural to feel concerned about the damaging effects of their low weight or the negative impact of their binging and purging behaviors on their health. It is crucial to express your concern in a friendly and non-judgmental manner. However, be prepared for the person to resist acknowledging the severity of their condition and believe that everything is fine. At this stage, they may not have gained insight into their eating disorder, and it may have become intertwined with their identity, providing perceived advantages such as an enhanced self-image or a tool for regulating emotions. Keep in mind that your supportive comments and concerns might eventually resonate with them and encourage them to take steps toward helping themselves.

Psychological Support Online or in the Netherlands in Veldhoven! At Authentic Therapy, I offer psychological support for individuals struggling with eating disorders and their relatives seeking guidance and understanding. Whether you prefer online sessions or in-person consultations, I am here to help you.

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