I Have a Friend Who…How to Help a Friend Struggling with an Eating Disorder

How many times have you heard a sentence that begins like the one above?  I hope that you hear it often because it usually means that the person making the statement really cares about someone who is struggling with a problem.  Friends of those who are struggling with disordered eating are no exception to this.  They are often very confused and exhausted from trying to help their friend through their struggles.  Here are a few things to remember as you walk this journey with a friend who shows signs of an eating disorder.

You cannot force someone to seek help, change their habits, or adjust their attitudes.  But you will make important progress in sharing your concerns honestly, providing support, and knowing where to go for more information.  Be caring, but be firm.  Caring about your friend does not mean being manipulated by her or him.  Your friend must be responsible for her or his actions and their consequences. Avoid making “rules,” promises or expectations that you cannot or will not uphold. For example, “I promise not to tell anyone,” or, “If you do this one more time, I’ll never talk to you again.”

Communicate your concerns.  Point out a few very specific instances that indicate to you that you should be concerned about your friend’s health, happiness and safety.  Explain that you think these things may show that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.  It’s better to give them reasons for your concern rather than asking, “Is everything okay?” or “Is there something you want to tell me?”  A direct approach usually works best and you can’t be brushed off as easily: “I am worried because I heard you throwing up after dinner.”

Be careful to avoid conflicts or a battle of the wills with your friend.  If she/he refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem or any reason for you to be concerned, restate your feelings and the reasons for them.  Leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener. Avoid placing shame, blame or guilt on your friend for her/his actions or attitudes.  Don’t use accusatory “you” statements, such as “You just need to eat” or “You are acting irresponsibly.”

After talking with your friend, if you are still concerned for her or his safety and health, find a trusted adult or medical professional to talk to.  This is a challenging and hard time for both of you.  It could be helpful for you, as well as for your friend, to discuss your concerns and to get support for yourself from a professional.

Lastly, follow through, and don’t give up.  People with eating disorders are very good at sidestepping the issue when confronted, and will try to convince you that nothing is wrong.  It is natural to want to believe that, but don’t give up on your concerns.  Your friend may also admit to you that yes, she had a problem, but she’s better now, or it’s under control.  Don’t be satisfied with that answer.

If you want to know more about how to get help for a friend who might be struggling with an eating disorder you can call Canopy Cove at 1-800-236-7524.

~Karen Gibbons, Director of Programs