Talking with someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. Knowing what to say to those with anorexia can support them to get help, ensure they feel less alone, and mitigate their shame.
Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.
Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.
Many other resources are also available, including:
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
- F.E.A.S.T., which provides support and educational resources to friends and family who want to help someone living with an eating disorder
Secrecy is a hallmark of this disorder. People with anorexia
It is especially important for authority figures, such as parents, teachers, and coaches, to know how to talk with a person with an eating disorder. This is because those with anorexia use restrictions to control anxiety, and attempts to control or punish them may trigger anxiety, worsening symptoms.
Read on to learn more about how to talk with someone about their anorexia.
As with any other mental health condition, it is important to validate — rather than stigmatize or minimize — a person’s feelings. Individuals need to listen to what they have to say instead of telling them how to feel.
A person can talk with them in private and ensure there is plenty of time to do so. They can also pick a moment when both parties are calm and not experiencing conflict.
Some specific things to consider include the following:
- Make neutral observations about their behavior. For example: “I have observed you are not eating,” or “I worry about how thin you are becoming.”
- Express concern for their well-being. Try: “I am worried that you are struggling,” or “I worry this weight loss will affect your health.”
- Ask them what they are experiencing and how they feel about their weight loss.
- Encourage them to talk about other stressors, which often play a role in eating disorders.
- Offer to help them get help.
Other phrases to try include:
- “I am here for you, and I am not going to judge or abandon you.”
- “I do not want to impose a solution on you. I want to help you find a solution.”
- “I may not understand, but I want to listen and learn.”
- “I am willing to help you find treatment, and I can even go with you if you like.”
- “If this conversation is too much right now, we can take a break.”
Avoid doing anything that increases shame or stigma, makes a person feel threatened or anxious, or makes someone with an eating disorder responsible for others’ emotions.
Some conversations to avoid include:
- Discussions of the person’s body: Avoid telling them they look bad and using other negative adjectives describing appearance. When they begin to recover, do not comment on their weight gain. Do not use words to describe their appearance, even positive adjectives such as “healthy” or “good.”
- Shaming or blaming them: Do not tell them how awful they are making you feel. Focus on their feelings, not yours.
- Punishment: Do not threaten them, express anger, or make them feel like they are not in control.
- Forced conversation: Do not violate their boundaries, trap them, or continue talking when they say the conversation is over.
Some strategies that can make conversations with a loved one with an eating disorder more productive include the following:
- Do some research first: It is essential to understand what eating disorders are, why they happen, and what treatments are most effective.
- Consider treatment options: Researching treatment options can help support a person to get care.
- Rehearse what to say: Consider asking a friend, family member, or therapist for input on a person’s planned discussion.
- Control emotions: Getting angry, crying, or otherwise making the person responsible for your feelings can backfire.
- Discuss other things: Do not talk to a person in recovery only about their eating disorder. Encourage them to take a break, have fun, and talk about the things that matter most to them.
- Prepare for defensiveness: It may take several conversations — and consistent love, affection, and support — for someone to feel fully willing to discuss disordered eating.
A person may not be ready for help the first time a loved one approaches them. If they are, it is helpful to have some ideas about treatment.
Before beginning the conversation, a person can research both inpatient and outpatient local eating disorder options. They can read reviews or talk with a therapist specializing in eating disorder treatment for feedback on effective options. Then, they can present these options to the individual.
Finances can be a significant barrier to treatment.
A person can consider offering to research which treatment someone’s insurance covers. Parents or caregivers need to prepare themselves to pay for their child’s treatment. A person with financial resources may consider helping fund a loved one’s care.
These resources can help with starting the conversation and learning more about eating disorders:
- Mental Health First Aid Action Plan
- National Eating Disorders Association
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders Hotline
- 988 on most phones for mental health crisis help
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Eating disorders are dangerous medical conditions that can be confusing to bystanders. However, starting the conversation lets the person with the eating disorder know that they matter and that someone is willing to help.
Remember that the goal is to offer love and support, not to fix everything immediately. With ongoing support, individuals can begin recovery.