How Family and Friends Can Help

"My grandmother used to say 'food is the best medicine.' She is right-- our brains, our hearts, and our souls need nourishment, and food is the place to start." - A parent of two young women

Information for Parents

Knowing a young person who is struggling with an eating disorder is understandably very distressing to parents/caregivers. Parents often blame themselves.  Sometimes battles can ensue when a parent is desperately trying to get their child to eat. Parents may find themselves negotiating elaborate food plans to appease their child. We believe parents have a critical role in helping their child get well.

In caring for your child, we acknowledge that all the necessary appointments can be time-consuming and challenging to schedule, but this is a critical time for your child's health. Early and targeted treatment is important in achieving the best outcomes. This is a surprisingly complex issue, which takes time and expertise of many professionals to resolve.

Here are some ways you can help:

Make it a point to express love and acceptance of your child. When you are frustrated with unhealthy behavior it is easy to forget this.

  • Encourage and participate in the initial evaluation. This will likely take several sessions and involve several different professionals, including medicine, nutrition, social work, and psychology/psychiatry.
  • Meet with the nutritionist. They can help with nutrition education and counseling and, if indicated, creation of a meal plan.
  • Eat meals as a family. It is typically recommended to eat meals with a young person with an eating disorder. Encourage your child to eat, but do not argue or belittle them in the process. Generally, you should stay with your child for 30 minutes after the meal. Your doctor will advise ways to deal with refusal to eat.
  • Support recommended limits in physical activity. This may include eliminating extracurricular sports activities, exercise, and/or school attendance. For some, bed rest or hospitalization may be indicated.
  • Express concern about your teen's health, but do not comment on body size, shape, weight, or poor eating habits. Try, “I am worried about your health and want you to have energy and be healthy,” rather than, “You look too thin.”
  • Expect clinic visits to take a while. Your child will be weighed and have their vital signs checked at every medical visit.  The physicians will discuss their care with you.  You will likely meet with additional members of our team (nutrition, social work, psychology).
  • Participate in the mental health plan. This will involve therapy for your child. Often, it may involve therapy for the family and you, because this is a stressful experience for everyone. We will obtain your permission to collaborate closely with the therapists involved.

How to Help a Friend

You can find a great deal of information if you conduct an internet search of the phrase “helping a friend with an eating disorder.”

It all boils down to this: Support the healthy aspects of your friend and discourage the unhealthy eating disorder symptoms and behaviors.

Young people with eating disorders are often mixed up about it - wanting help - afraid to get help - insisting there is no problem, but focusing all their energy around food one way or another - appearing in control of everything, terrified about being out of control.

But, the illness is trying to take over your friend's health.

 You can help by:

  • Expressing your concern
  • Giving examples of what you observe that is concerning
  • Recognizing the difficulty and fear in not giving in to the eating disorder
  • Connecting with adults willing to help
  • Expressing your concern again

You may not be able to change much. Arguments and guilt-tripping seldom help, but honest expressions of concern can strengthen a friend's ability to confront an eating problem. Heartfelt support can weaken the hold of the eating disorder. 

If there is concern that the eating disorder is life-threatening or has created serious medical complications, or if the person seems suicidal or in danger, contact a mental health professional immediately.