Helping a Friend with an Eating Disorder
Helping Your Friend
Please note: For ease in reading, we have used "she" and "her" in the description below even though eating disorders exist in men, women, girls, and boys. This advice is suitable for a child of either gender.
If your friend doesn't admit to having a problem and/or doesn't want help, the best way to approach her is to help her see that she needs assistance. However, you'll need to prepare yourself well since approaching a friend with an eating disorder can be tricky.
Remember that her eating disorder is a desperate way of trying to cope with underlying problems. Even though you can see her disorder as unhealthy and unproductive, your friend may view her eating habits as a lifeline. That is why it is common for someone with an eating disorder to get upset or mad if you try to help her. She may fear that you are going to take away her only coping mechanism. She may deny the problem, be furious that you discovered her secret, or feel threatened by your caring. When you raise your concerns, give your friend time and space to think and respond.
Before approaching your friend, find out about resources for help in your community so that you can offer her a strategy to connect with that help.
You might first seek advice from someone else, like a counselor at school, or perhaps read more about eating disorders. Choose a cozy, safe, and private place to talk. Plan ahead for enough time to talk without being interrupted.
Begin by telling your friend how much you care about her. Next, gently offer some specific observations about her emotional well-being or lack thereof. For example: "You seem unhappy / preoccupied / anxious / fidgety / distant / jumpy / angry, and I'm worried about you." Speak from your heart, using "I" statements. Do not name other people who are also worried about her. That can feel like an overwhelming gang-up.
Then give your friend a few observations about her behavior to explain why you think she might have an eating disorder. For example: "I see you skip meals / I watch you run to the bathroom / I hear you talk all the time about being afraid of being fat, what you ate, how much you're going to exercise, etc."
If she gets upset or mad, stay calm. Do not get angry or panic. Do not get into a "Yes, you do / No, I don't" power struggle. Remind her that friends tell friends when they are worried about them.
If she insists that she doesn't have a problem, or that she can stop on her own, you can say something like, "You know how it is with alcoholism and denial. The addiction makes it so hard to see you have a serious problem and that you need help. I'm worried you're trapped in a similar kind of situation. Even though I hear what you're saying, I think you're really struggling and you need help stopping. I believe in you and I know you deserve to get help and get better."
Give your friend information about who can help her. Offer to go with her. It may take more than one approach before she will agree to get help. If she refuses to get help, tell her that you are not going to bug her, but that you are also not going to stop being concerned either. For example: "Even if I can't convince you get help now, I can't stop caring." This gives you a foot in the door without being too threatening.
Stay calm and avoid sounding as if your mission is to rescue or cure her. Eating disorders are serious physical and psychological problems, but they are usually not emergencies. However, if your friend is fainting, suicidal, or otherwise in serious danger, get professional help immediately. These words may help: "I don't care if you're mad at me. Friends don't let friends suffer in danger and isolation."
If your friend is getting help for her eating disorder, stay connected to her the same way you would with any friend. Call her, invite her to do things, hang out, and ask her for advice about your life.
When talking with her about herself, it is usually best to focus on daily life events, on her feelings about herself and her life, and on your concern about her. Do not focus on her eating disorder. Her eating disorder is a sign that other issues are troubling her and a way of trying to deal with those issues. Moreover, most people with eating disorders feel embarrassed about them and feel safer in friendships in which friends do not try to get involved in the details of the disorder.
Avoid all comments - even compliments - about looks, weight, food intake, or clothes. This includes hers, yours, and other people's. Avoid giving her advice on how she could change her behavior. Do not ask a lot of questions about her recovery. Remember that recovery takes time.
Gluck, S. (2008, December 25). Helping a Friend with an Eating Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, November 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders/articles/helping-a-friend-with-an-eating-disorder