If your friend has a child with an eating disorder, it can help for you to know the dos and dont’s of helping them cope. We are writing this article in hopes that it will be discovered by and shared with the many extended family members and close family friends who want to support their friend who has a child that has been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Here are the things you can do and not do for a friend who is struggling:
Don’t blame me
Eating disorders are complex, and combine genetic, social, environmental and many other factors. Please don’t immediately assume that there is something wrong with the way I’ve parented. It’s natural for you – especially if you are also a parent – to seek the reason behind my child’s eating disorder in order to feel as if you can avoid the same fate, but eating disorders are much larger than parents.
Do understand I’m freaking out
There’s a lot of stigma associated with having a child who has a mental illness. I am walking around constantly worried about not only having a sick kid but wondering whom I can trust with this information. Who will understand? Who won’t judge me? Who will help? And even though I just told you that it’s not my fault, I’m a parent, and I’m pretty much feeling guilty every single minute. What could I have done? What should I have done? What did I do wrong?
Do see my exhaustion
I have a sick kid. I need to shuttle my sick kid back and forth from all sorts of appointments. Eating disorders aren’t the parents’ fault, but parents are key to recovery, so I have made changes to our home and our family behaviors. I’m doing absolutely everything I can to help my sick kid right now. And I still have all my other responsibilities. I’m totally overwhelmed and exhausted right now.
Do learn about eating disorders before talking about them with me
I’m not just talking about a vague memory of knowing someone who had an eating disorder who you knew. And I really don’t want to hear about your college roommate who was hospitalized and ultimately died young. I’d love it if you learned about the latest research on eating disorders. I’d be thrilled if you knew about some of the treatments we’re working through, how we’re approaching food and body image, and how we’re working on this as a family.
Don’t make assumptions
A very, very small portion of people who have eating disorders “look” sick. Most people who have eating disorders don’t look sick. Please don’t assume that my child has anorexia, needs to be hospitalized, needs to be underweight, or needs to go to a treatment center. When you make well-meaning assumptions like that, I may feel self-conscious or defensive when I tell you that my child has a different eating disorder, or is in a larger body, or is working with a therapist just once a week. Eating disorders don’t all look the same, and they are all a hard to handle regardless of how they look on the outside.
Do talk to me about this
It’s very difficult for me to find people who are willing to listen without prejudice or fear when I talk about what I’m going through. It’s hard, because I’m taking responsibility for the healing process, and trying to change a lot of things about how we live, and that may make you think that it means I’m guilty. It’s impossible for me to feel safe talking to someone who thinks I’m guilty of my child’s illness. But I would love to talk to you if you would listen and just recognize that I’m a parent going through a hard time, doing my best, fighting for my child’s future.
Do let me cry
I may cry at inappropriate times. I’m very vulnerable. I don’t want you to feel like you’re walking on eggshells with me, and it would mean so much if it was OK with you if I know it’s OK if I break down in tears sometimes. I really need a shoulder to cry on right now. The emotions circulating our house right now are HUGE, and most of them seem to be falling on my shoulders. I don’t want to be a downer, and I know it can be really uncomfortable, but it would mean so much if I could open up about my sadness when I’m with you.
Do be kind to my children
My child who has an eating disorder is very fragile right now. Eating disorder treatment is about so much more than eating and weight. It’s a process of learning to internalize a sense of self-worth and tolerate and communicate feelings. Please avoid any discussions about food and weight when you are around my child. But also pay attention to my child’s emotional state, and give him or her care, support, and love. Meanwhile, my other children may be feeling annoyed, left out, and even jealous. If you can, please involve them in conversation so they feel seen and heard, too.
Don’t be offended if …
I may act oddly sometimes. For example, if you show up for a visit with a giant box of chocolates, I may feel awkward. My child is undergoing treatment for an eating disorder, so food is a hot button right now. If you invite my family to a big meal at your home, I may have to say no. This is not because we don’t want to be with you, but my child may not be able to handle a food-based event right now. If you make a comment in front of me about anybody’s weight, I may walk away from you. Weight is a serious topic of discussion for us right now, and I know it’s part of normal society to comment both positively and negatively about other people’s weight, but I may not be able to handle it. There are so many social situations that I may flub until I figure out how to navigate the world given what we’re going through.
Do trust my judgment
I’m not sure that I’m making the right choices right now, but I am consulting therapists and experts, and doing what I think is best for my child and my family. I’m sure that you have some excellent ideas about how treatment should go, or what we should be doing, but please keep them to yourself unless I ask you specifically for your opinion. I know that it’s hard to listen and feel like you could make things better with your treatment ideas, but truly, the way you can make things better for me is to trust that the professionals we have hired are giving me what I need right now.
But really – what can I actually DO to help?
These are all wonderful ways of responding to your friend emotionally. But sometimes friends pull back or withdraw during a crisis. And sometimes we just want to do something tangible and physical. Usually, it’s best to keep it simple, anticipate needs rather than ask what you can do, and be specific about what you’re offering. And most of all, these should be gifts with no expectation of a long chat or catch-up in return. Pay attention to your friend’s responses and if you think they are feeling guilty or in debt to you for your help rather than grateful in an uncomplicated way, do less. Here are some ideas:
1. Do Bring Meals or Order Delivery
Don’t ask them in advance: don’t add pressure by asking what they want or when they want it. Just do your best and guess. Pick something that can be frozen or refrigerated for another night.
Don’t knock on the door: just leave the food on the doorstep and text your friend when you’ve left. This is a no-obligation gift that requires no emotional energy on the part of the recipient. You can say “Hey! I was thinking of you and left some dinner on your doorstep xoxo”
2. Do Bring Flowers or Have them Delivered
Don’t knock on the door: just leave them on the doorstep and text your friend when you’ve left. This is a no-obligation gift that requires no emotional energy on the part of the recipient. You can say “Hey! I was thinking of you and left some flowers on your doorstep to brighten your day xoxo”
3. Do Offer Cleaning/Gardening Service
This can be a bit tricky, but if you think it would be appreciated by your friend, say something like: “I know you have a lot going on, and I’d like to help. Would it be OK if I sent Kyle over with the lawnmower on Saturday morning for you?” or “I know it’s always a treat when Merry Maids comes to my house – would you accept a gift from me of a cleaning service one day next week?”
4. Do Offer to Run Errands
You can say something like: “Hey, I’m running to the grocery store this afternoon. Would you like to send me your list and I’ll pick up what you need and drop it off for you?”
Don’t require them to invite you in when you bring the groceries. Either leave the groceries on the doorstep or help get the groceries inside, but don’t linger unless you sense they have the emotional capacity and interest in talking.
5. Do Offer to Drive to Appointments in a Pinch
Be specific about the times you are available to help.
You can say something like: “Hey, I know you have a lot of appointments and are driving around a lot right now. I wanted to let you know that I’m available on Tuesday and Thursday 12-6 if you ever need to use me as a taxi service. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you need it! xoxo
It can be hard to support a friend whose child has an eating disorder. Thank you for learning and trying!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.