There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to talk to someone with an eating disorder and different approaches will work for different people.
1. Be prepared
The most important thing you can do when approaching someone about an eating disorder is to be prepared and educate yourself as much as possible about eating disorders. The person you care about may be experiencing high levels of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, guilt or denial or may not recognise that they have an eating problem.
It is important to take this into consideration and be prepared to deal with the person if they respond with anger or denial. Feeling angry or denying that there is something wrong does not mean that the problem does not exist.
2. Choose a caring environment
Any approach needs to be carried out in a caring manner, in an environment that can support open and calm conversation. For example, it can be beneficial to approach the person in an environment where they feel most comfortable and safe, such as at home. Avoid broaching the topic if you are around food or in situations in which either of you are angry, tired or emotional.
3. Use the right language
If you are approaching someone with an eating disorder, you need to take into account their fear of disclosing their behaviours or feelings. Let them know that you care about them and that you want to help them face the problem and support them through every stage of the healing process.
Below are some helpful tips when talking to someone you suspect may have an eating disorder:
- Try to use ‘I’ statements; e.g. ‘I care about you’ or ‘I’m worried about you’
- Make the person feel comfortable and let them know it is safe to talk to you
- Encourage them to express how they feel; remember, it is important to understand how they feel, rather than just state how you feel
- Give your loved one time to talk about their feelings – don’t rush them through the conversation
- Listen respectfully to what your loved one has to say and let them know that you won’t judge or criticise them
- Encourage them to seek help and explain that you will be there with them each step of the way
When talking to someone you care about, there are also certain things you should try to avoid:
- Avoid putting the focus on food; instead, try talking about how the person is feeling instead
- Do not use language that implies blame or that the person is doing something wrong; e.g. ‘You are making me worried.’ Instead try, ‘I am worried about you’
- Try not to take on the role of a therapist or dominate the conversation. You do not need to have all the answers; it is most important to listen and create a space for the person to talk
- Avoid manipulative statements; e.g. ‘Think about what you are doing to me’ or ‘If you loved me you would eat properly.’ This can worsen the eating disorder and may make it more difficult for the person to admit to their problem
- Do not use any threatening statements; e.g. ‘If you don’t eat right I will punish you.’ This can be extremely harmful to the person’s emotions and behaviour and can exacerbate the eating problem significantly
It can also be beneficial to talk to a medical professional or support organisation before you approach someone about their eating problems. Your local specialist or support organisation can help you further understand the issue and may be able to provide you with further advice about how to raise the topic with the person you care about.