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What do I do if my friend has an eating disorder?

eating disorderPeople with an eating disorder are often afraid to ask for help. Some are struggling just as much as you are to find a way to start a conversation about their problem, while others have such low self-esteem they simply don’t feel that they deserve any help.

Eating disorders will only get worse without treatment, and the physical and emotional damage can be severe. The sooner you start to help a loved one, the better their chances of recovery.

Start by talking to your friend privately. 

Explain that you’re worried. Be as kind as possible, and try to really listen to and be supportive about what your friend is going through.

If your friend opens up about what’s going on, ask how you can help. 

Tell your friend you want to help him or her get healthy again. Try not to make statements like “If you’d just eat (or stop working out so much), you’ll get better.” Instead, simply asking “How can I help?” shows you can listen and be supportive without judging.

Find out as much as you can about eating disorders from reliable sources. 

Many organizations, books, websites, hotlines, and other resources are keen to helping people who are fighting eating disorders. Learning more can help you better understand what your friend is going through. Share what you learn with your friend if he or she is open to it, but don’t preach or try to tell your friend what’s best for him or her.

Try not to be too watchful of your friend’s eating habits, food amounts, and choices. 

It can be tempting to try to get a friend to eat more, but eating disorders are complicated, so it often does no good. And it may push your friend away if he or she thinks you’re judging, lecturing, or just trying to make him or her regain lost weight.

Know your limits. 

Being concerned and trying to help is part of a good friendship. But don’t take it on yourself to fix things. Telling your friend what to do or how to act probably won’t work. You can talk to your parents or school counselor about your concerns and get advice on what to do next.

Focus on inner qualities. 

Try not to talk about food, weight, diets, or body shape (yours, your friend’s, or even a popular celebrity’s). Focus instead on people’s strengths — like how someone is a good friend, has a fun personality, or has talents in something like math or art.

Remind your friend that you’re there no matter what.

Listen and be supportive. Sometimes you’d be surprised how asking a simple question (like “What would make you feel better?”) can lead to a great conversation about how you can help your friend heal. Offer to go with your friend to a support group or be there when your friend talks to a counselor.

Avoid giving simple solutions.

For example, “If you’d just stop, then everything would be fine!”

Your adored one may deny having an eating disorder or may become angry and defensive. However, it’s important you don’t give up. It may take some time before your loved one is willing to open up and admit to having a problem. Still, as difficult as it is to know that someone you love has an eating disorder, you cannot force someone to change. Unless it’s a young child, the decision to seek recovery has to come from them. But you can help by making it clear that you’ll continue to be there for him or her, with your compassion and support, whenever they’re ready to tackle the problem.

If you realize your friend needs more help than you can offer, you may want to start the recovery process immediately. Learn how to start the process today.

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