Supporting a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder can be difficult, as you want to maintain your friendship and help them however you can but you don’t want to make things worse.
If a loved one is living with or recovering from an eating disorder, these are 12 ways that you can help them as their friend.
1. Learn about eating disorders
To know more about what your friend is going through, it can be helpful to learn about the different types of eating disorders and the behaviours associated with them. You can be a better friend if you educate yourself on their eating disorder, even if you don’t know specifically what their ED is, and learning generally about this will help you understand their mindset and actions.
2. Know the warning signs
Along with learning generally about their eating disorder, it’s important to know the warning signs of EDs as well. Does your friend spend a long time in the bathroom after meals? Do they spend more time playing with their food than eating? Do they talk about their weight and appearance, often comparing themselves to others?
By knowing the warning signs (available on the NHS website or other online resources), you can know when your friend is struggling and support them in those times of need.
3. Don’t lecture or criticise them
One of the worst things you can do as a friend to someone with an eating disorder is try to lecture them on what they should be doing or criticise how they’re acting. You cannot expect to tell your friend that they should ‘just eat more’ or ‘stop worrying about their weight’ and think they will recover instantly.
Eating disorders are usually accompanied with body dysphoria, depression, or anxiety, and criticising them will only result in your friend feeling isolated and misunderstood.
4. Maintain your friendship
As an eating disorder can often be coupled with depression and anxiety, it’s important to maintain your friendship and act as if nothing’s changed. When a friend is struggling with an eating disorder, they can easily feel more lonely and as if they’re a burden, so ensuring them that you are still friends and reminding them that your friendship hasn’t changed will help combat their negative thoughts.
5. Spend time together not eating
When so much social activity revolves around eating, snacking, and going out for meals, it can be easy for friends with an eating disorder to feel like all eyes are on them and that they can’t escape their problems.
As their friend, try to encourage them to spend time doing activities that don’t revolve around food, including going to the movies, having a self-care night, or venturing to town for the day.
6. Show them that you love them
If your friend is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to remind them that you love them and ensure them that your feelings towards them haven’t changed. Make sure you check up on them not to be nosy or act like they’re struggling, but just because you’re missing them and want to hang out with them more.
7. Avoid commenting on their appearance
To support a friend with an eating disorder, work to compliment them on their personality and non-physical attributes instead of complementing them on their figure, outfit, hair, or makeup.
While compliments are a good thing, someone struggling with an ED is likely already obsessing about their appearance enough as it is, so it’s important to remind them that they are beautiful in other ways and take their mind off their body.
8. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements
When you’re trying to console your friend or suggest things that they could do to help themselves, avoid making it all about them and instead put the focus on you. Instead of saying ‘You’re really worrying me’ or ‘Your behaviour isn’t healthy’, say ‘I want to know if there is anything I can do as your friend’ or ‘If you went to the doctor for help it would make me feel better.’
9. Set a positive example with food
Instead of eating junk food around them or snacking incessantly, try to set a positive example with food as the friend to someone with an eating disorder. Talk about healthy eating and having a balanced diet instead of wanting to be super skinny and not eat, and this will benefit both of you.
As their friend, listen to what they’re feeling instead of trying to offer solutions all the time. Your friend may try to deflect the conversation back to you, but try to ask them how they’re doing and listen to what they say so they feel they can turn to you when they need to talk things through.
11. Take care of yourself
If you’re supporting someone with an eating disorder, it’s important to take care of yourself, too. It isn’t selfish to ensure your own well-being in this time because you cannot be a good friend if you’re not taking care of yourself as well.
It can be difficult to watch a friend struggle, so ensure you are also speaking to someone and getting help if you need it, as you should also have a place to talk through how you’re feeling.
12. Encourage them to seek professional help
Most importantly, if your friend is struggling with an eating disorder, you need to remind yourself that you will not be able to cure them or be their rock through recovery. Above all, you should work to encourage them to see a doctor and speak to a professional so they can start recovering and getting to a healthy place, physically and mentally.
This is the best thing you can do to support a friend with an ED as professional help is the only way they can begin their path to recovery.