A Family's Guide to Tackling Eating Disorders
all information

A Family's Guide to Tackling Eating Disorders

feet on a scale Patients with eating disorders are not the only ones who suffer. The struggle becomes a family affair. While there are things families should try to avoid doing or saying, there are just as many things that they can do to help not only their loved one, but also themselves.

The Long Road to Recovery

Learning that someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder is never easy. The initial diagnosis may come as a shock. But, for some people and their loved ones, what comes after the diagnosis can be even harder. Successful treatment of eating disorders is a long process, which can involve irregular progress and setbacks.

"Progress in an eating disorder is measured in years," says Carolyn Costin, director of the Monte Nido Treatment Center in California. "Recovery will take a long time, and you have to prepare yourself for that."

It is important that affected women and their families do not give up hope. People who have eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia can recover.

"Recovery is attainable, but it is a matter of being patient and allowing that recovery process to happen," says Julie Clark-Sly, PhD, a director at the Center for Change in Utah.

Understandably, though, there will be times when your patience is tested, like when your loved one returns to destructive behaviors. So what can you do?

Ways to Educate Yourself

Perhaps the first step in helping your loved one recover is educating yourself about eating disorders. People often assume that eating disorders are about food and weight, but that is not true. "Eating disorders are about underlying issues," says Julie DeLettre Holland, MS, an eating disorder specialist in Georgia.

To deal with those issues, your loved one will need to work with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, has shown to be useful for treating people with eating disorders. Involving the whole family in therapy is another effective strategy to help with the recovery process.

In addition, you can attend educational meetings to find out more about eating disorders, including the possible causes, related health problems, and treatments. If your loved one is getting special care at a treatment center, the staff may offer classes for families members. Joining a support group may also be beneficial for you.

Do not forget about taking care of your own needs, though! Clark-Sly adds, ""You have to take a break from the problem, especially if your loved one lives at home."

Recovery Strategies

The best thing that you can do is provide support. "She needs the family to be a steady, stable force of love and support," Clark-Sly says. Here are some actions you can take to make things easier for you and your loved one:

  1. Ask how you can be supportive. Talking about how you can help is the healthiest way of dealing with things.
  2. Do not let your relationship focus solely on her. You are an important person, too. When you are talking about her day, for instance, share information about your day, Holland says.
  3. Try to keep the attention off of food. Whether you are at a family reunion or the dinner table, "focusing on food creates disaster," Clark-Sly says. Talk about the day's events, go for a walk, or play board games.
  4. Legalize all foods. "It is not healthy to cater to the belief that foods are good or bad," Holland says. Costin, who has recovered from anorexia, also suggests offering to serve something your loved one will eat if you are hosting the event.
  5. Try to keep the family's regular eating patterns. Your loved one's eating disorder should not control how other members of the family eat and live. If she feels that specific family changes would support her recovery, bring this topic up during a family therapy session.
  6. Be a good role model. Think about your own eating habits and attitude towards weight loss. If you admire people who are extremely slender, exercise excessively, or are constantly dieting, your loved one may get confused about what is a healthy lifestyle.
  7. Have a strategy for responding to comments. If you are also working with a therapist, she can help you develop effective strategies for responding to your loved one. For example, if the person says, "I feel fat," you may want to respond by asking about what kinds of fears surround the idea of being fat, such as fear of being rejected by peers.
  8. Do not ignore destructive behaviors. When you see her engaging in behaviors like binging, purging, or not eating at all, show that you care. Ask if anything is going on or if she wants to talk. Even if you are feeling angry and frustrated, remember that your loved one needs your to be kind and respectful.
  9. Approach your loved one's therapist with your concerns. While a therapist cannot reveal confidential information, she can listen to your concerns.
  10. Remember that there is no right or wrong reaction. "If you are always worried about how to relate, then you will be fake and rigid," Clark-Sly says. "Be yourself and follow your heart."

With care from doctors and therapists and support from friends and family, it is possible for your loved one to recover from an eating disorder.


National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

National Eating Disorders Association


Canadian Mental Health Association

Canadian Psychiatric Association


Eating disorders. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/complete-index.shtml. Accessed May 5, 2011.

Help for family and friends. National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Available at: http://www.nedic.ca/giveandgethelp/helpforfriendsfamily.shtml. Accessed May 5, 2011.

What should I say? National Eating Disorders Association. Available at: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/nedaDir/files/documents/handouts/WhatISay.pdf. Published 2005. Accessed May 5, 2011.

Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Last updated Updated: 5/5/2011

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Your Health and Happiness