7 Guidelines for supporting a loved one with an eating disorder
The following guidelines were developed by Jenny Langley who facilitates a carers group in Kent, and Nigel Jacobs who is a systemic family therapist. They are designed to support carers (parents, partners, siblings etc) of people with eating disorders and reflect a collaborative approach. I hope you find these ideas helpful.
1. Look after yourselves first
An exhausted carer cannot be an effective carer. Regularly review your “time out”, things that help you relax, get you out in the fresh air, make you laugh etc. Also your support network. When friends or family offer help, accept it graciously and give them a specific task. So often people want to help but don’t know how. By looking after yourselves you are role modelling that self-care is very important and that there is more to life than the eating disorder. I am attaching a map that we made in a recent workshop which illustrates what a support network might look like.
2. Remember your loved one is ill
This is not a lifestyle choice or a teenage fad. Your loved one is not doing it on purpose. Be an informed carer and learn the warning signs that your loved one might be in medical danger and know what to do if things are deteriorating fast. When medical risk is high be prepared to step in and take over. When medical risk is back in safer territory you can step back and let your loved one gradually take more responsibility for their own welfare. Remember to “Do with your loved one” rather than “Do unto your loved one”.
3. Remember that the eating disorder has a purpose
..Control, safety, my friend, I am good at this, I don’t have to grow up, I get lots of attention, it is my identity etc. There is a great saying “every behaviour has a positive intention”. If you just take away the eating disorder you risk leaving a void. Recovery is a very gradual process in which your loved one will learn to adopt their own new healthier coping strategies.
4. Try not to focus all your attention on the eating disorder behaviours
Your loved one is still there, just being masked at the moment by the power of the eating disorder. Try to notice your loved one and her/his attempts to fight back against the eating disorder. Notice the smallest effort to make changes and try not to show your disappointment when there are setbacks. These are an inevitable and important part of the recovery journey. “Every mistake is a treasure”
5. Do not try to fix your loved one
The danger is you end up arguing with the eating disorder voice and you are unlikely to win that argument. As a first step consider how you might make small changes to your own responses to the eating disorder behaviours. Are you being bullied by the eating disorder voice, are you accommodating or enabling some of the eating disorder behaviours? Most of us do this to start with because we fear that not doing so might make things worse and we want to keep the peace. Gradually making small changes to your own caring behaviours can have a significant positive impact on family life and role models that change is possible. The animal analogies are useful. Remember there is no such thing as a good or bad animal. However as your loved one progresses through their recovery journey carers often find it useful to be a bit less of the rhino, kangaroo,terrier, ostrich, jellyfish and a bit more dolphin and St Bernard like. Gentle nudging, unconditional love and patience of a saint.
6. Support your loved one, sometimes with comfort, sometimes with gentle challenges Remember to just double check every now and then: “Am I comforting the person or the illness?” Once your loved one is ready you can help your loved one to make plans and set realistic goals. If you try to push for change too quickly this can bring out the eating disorder voice. If you try to offer assistance and it is rejected, don’t be disheartened, it might just be too early. Be Columbo and take the step down approach. “Help me understand” “I am curious to know” “Have I got this wrong”
7. Expanding the Circle of Control and Reducing the Circle of Chaos
The eating disorder reduces a person’s circle of control, their life shrinks as it is increasingly governed by rigid rules and eating disorder behaviours. As recovery progresses the circle of control needs to expand for the young person to regain a healthy and full quality of life. This is a challenging process and - you can try experiments that will “stretch” the circle out gradually with baby steps. Each experiment should be hard enough to slightly stretch the young person out of their comfort zone, but not so hard that they are setting themselves up for a major fall. The same applies to carers who are experimenting with changing their responses to their loved one as recovery progresses.
A huge thanks the Jenny and Nigel. I hope you found these ideas helpful. You may also be interested in my eating disorders topic page which automatically curates my latest videos and blog posts about eating disorders.