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June 26, 2024

How Do I Support My Loved One in Eating Disorder Treatment?

How Do I Support My Loved One in Eating Disorder Treatment?

When a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, the impact is felt by everyone around them. Whether your partner or child is entering treatment, the experience can be overwhelming and confusing. The path to recovery is often filled with ups and downs, and knowing how to offer support can be challenging. 

This guide aims to provide you with insights, strategies, and resources to help you navigate this difficult time, whether you’re a partner trying to understand your loved one’s journey or a parent seeking to support your child’s recovery. We’ll get into the unique challenges and considerations for both roles, offering practical advice on how to create a supportive environment, communicate effectively, and handle the complexities of treatment together.

How Do I Support My Partner in Eating Disorder Treatment?

Though relationships can be negatively affected by eating disorders, they can often serve as a key catalyst in recovery as well. One study, in fact, revealed that a supportive partner relationship was the most influential positive factor in women’s recovery.

The support of loved ones is essential to the recovery process, but knowing how to best support your partner can be tricky to navigate. In this blog, we focus on romantic partnerships and how they can be affected by an eating disorder, as well as some helpful tips for those supporting a loved one with this illness.  

How an Eating Disorder Can Affect a Relationship

Although a supportive partner can have an incredibly positive impact on one’s recovery, there are also areas of a relationship that can be negatively affected by an eating disorder. Below are some examples of how an eating disorder can affect a romantic relationship:

Communication

Eating disorders can pose many challenges to effective communication in a romantic partnership and in every kind of relationship. Communication can be made difficult when one person in the relationship is completely consumed by thoughts about food and their body. In addition to general communication, the secretive nature of eating disorders can present a challenge when trying to have conversations about them. 

When couples are able to communicate, things that are said can get twisted by the eating disorder’s characteristically cruel voice. The eating disorder “filter” your partner is speaking through can cause you to feel like you are talking to a completely different person than you once knew. If you don’t know your partner is speaking through this filter, you could end up feeling hurt, angry, or confused. 

Many people don’t know how to ask for help with an eating disorder. This means that one’s partner has a tremendous opportunity to help their loved one get the help they need.

Emotional Health

Even deeper than hurt and confusion, dysfunction caused by ineffective communication can lead to feelings of helplessness and fear. If these feelings are not dealt with, they can drive a wedge between partners and lead them to question their relationship. This can cause partners to become emotionally distant from each other and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, both of which are often already a symptom of eating disorders. 

This is why supporting someone with an eating disorder is such a profound challenge and gift. You may find it hard to like your partner in such moments, but your love for them can shine through.

Sexual Intimacy

In addition to communication and emotional issues, shame, low self-confidence, body dissatisfaction, and negative body image can complicate or compromise physical intimacy. Sexual intimacy can be difficult for someone with an eating disorder because they may be consumed with their perceived imperfections. It can be hard for them to be in the moment and focus on their partner when they are consumed by negative thoughts from their illness. 

From a medical perspective, food restriction can also decrease hormonal functioning, contributing to a decrease in energy, mood, and libido. Research shows that sexual dysfunction is common across eating disorder diagnoses, and women with anorexia, in particular, tend to report lower interest in sexual intimacy.

5 Ways to Support Your Partner with an Eating Disorder

It is so important to understand that you cannot “fix,” heal, or cure your partner’s eating disorder. You can, however, play an integral role in their recovery journey as a source of love and encouragement. Here are five ways that you can best support your partner with an eating disorder:

1. Educate yourself about eating disorders

Educating yourself on eating disorders is a necessary aspect of supporting your loved one. Researching the basics of eating disorders, as well as the best ways to support a loved one are great places to start. There are many books, podcasts, and web resources that can further educate you about these complex mental illnesses. 

2. Refrain from making comments about appearance

Even well-intentioned comments like “You look healthy!” can be very triggering for someone with an eating disorder, as they can reinforce a preoccupation with weight and body. There are so many non-physical attributes you could compliment instead. Some examples include their personality traits, accomplishments, or skills.

3. Avoid trying to “fix” or stop your loved one’s behaviors

Evidence-based interventions suggest that partners of those with eating disorders should aim to support their partner and avoid monitoring or policing their behaviors. While it is wise to watch for and discuss warning signs, refrain from commenting on your partner’s food during mealtimes. The best thing you can do is model a balanced relationship with food yourself. 

4. Shower your partner with love and support

Your unconditional love and support can be immensely impactful when it comes to your partner’s treatment and recovery. One of the best ways to help is just to listen to your partner and let them tell you what they are experiencing. Another way is to ask your partner what they need from you; they are going to know best what they need. There are general tips for partners of people with eating disorders, but everyone is different, and asking what unique things you can do to make things easier for them will be much appreciated. 

5. Find support for yourself

Supporting a partner with an eating disorder can be physically and mentally draining. We best help others only when we are taking care of ourselves as well. This includes basic self-care like getting enough sleep and moving your body joyfully, but it could also include attending a support group or individual or couples therapy. Do not hesitate to lean on your own support people around you, just as your partner is leaning on you, but remember that professional help may also be necessary. 

How Do I Support My Child in Eating Disorder Treatment?

Starting eating disorder treatment can be scary for the individual affected—but it can also be a stressful time for parents. When your child experiences a negative food/body relationship, you may struggle to understand why. Their behaviors may seem perplexing and leave you feeling frustrated, afraid, and sad. The Emily Program understands that it’s difficult to watch someone you love struggle with an eating disorder. It’s also difficult to know how to comfort them.

What Will Happen When My Child Starts Treatment?

Eating disorder treatment is a new experience, and like all new things, it can be scary at first. Prior to starting treatment, your child’s eating disorder behaviors may increase due to the stress and fear of starting treatment and confronting the eating disorder. Your child may experience dread, anger, anxiety, or depression. They may also experience relief upon knowing that they are on the road to recovery. All of these feelings are normal. 

For parents, it’s important to be aware and present in the days or weeks before treatment. Make sure to check in with your child about how they are feeling or if they could use any specific support. Reassure them that treatment is a good idea because it will help them to live their best life. Be vocal about your support and be present when they share with you.

Upon starting treatment, your child may experience anger, frustration, or fear. Treatment requires necessary changes. Meal plans are put in place, therapy occurs, and individuals are encouraged to form supportive relationships that challenge their fears. All of these new experiences and events can spark anxiety. On the positive side, the sense of comradery and community can also leave individuals feeling seen, acknowledged, supported, and like they are not alone. 

How to Provide Comfort to Your Child in Treatment

The first step to providing care to your child is to try your best to understand what they are going through. While you will never be able to fully understand their experience, you can educate yourself on the illness. Eating disorders are complex, so they can be hard to understand on your own. To learn more about eating disorders, The Emily Program offers an ED 101 class, where people can learn about the illnesses and voice questions they may have. 

Once you have taken the time to educate yourself on eating disorders, it’s important to be aware of what can be harmful during eating disorder treatment and recovery. We advise against the following:

  1. Talking about food or body. Food and body-based talk can be harmful during recovery. We advise against focusing or fixating on what your child eats or looks like during treatment and recovery. Comments like, “You are looking so much healthier now that you’ve put on a little weight” and “You ate all your food!” can be harmful to those in recovery. By focusing on what your children look like, you may exacerbate their appearance anxiety or increase their body-based thoughts. By focusing on how much or how little they are eating, you may add to the anxiety of mealtimes and recovery. Instead of these comments, we suggest focusing on what your child is doing well and how treatment and recovery will help them. Try statements like, “I’m glad we can spend time together during this meal” or “I’m proud of you.”

  2. Comparing. Avoid the comparison trap. You may find yourself comparing your child’s recovery to someone else’s or their progress to someone else’s. Keep in mind that everyone has a unique experience in treatment and will experience a unique recovery. Focus on your child, not those around them.

  3. Making assumptions. Most likely, there will be times during your child’s treatment that you feel like they are “better” or that they are doing a great job. It’s important not to place your feelings on your child. It’s more helpful to ask your child how they are doing before assuming. That way, you can connect with your child without any presumptions that may cloud the conversation.

Luckily, there are also several things you can do to provide comfort for your child in treatment! If you are unsure where to start, try one of the following:

  1. Get them settled into treatment. From residential to day programming to outpatient, treatment can be scary because it’s a new experience. If you are able, consider helping your child settle into their new schedule with treatment. You could drive them to appointments, visit them if they are in a residential setting, or send them to treatment with relaxing activities they can do in their free time (books, cards, puzzles, or coloring books). 

  2. Ask what they need and want. Make sure to check in frequently with your child about their needs and wants during treatment. They may ask you to support them in specific ways, if so, make sure you put the effort in to abide by their wishes. Keep in mind that treatment is an essential step in eating disorder recovery. We always recommend listening to your child’s treatment team for their treatment plan.

  3. Work with your child’s treatment team. Make sure you work with your child’s treatment team. If they share a meal plan or treatment plan with you, it’s important that you are on board and not undermining their plan. If you aren’t sure about a plan, it’s okay to ask! Being on the same page is vital, that way, you can all work together to support your child and your child can receive a consistent message. 

  4. Be there and listen. Living with an eating disorder is exhausting. Being in treatment is exhausting. It’s likely that your child is experiencing a wide range of emotions, too. By being present and acting as a listening ear, you can provide a safe space for your child to vent or express themselves. By having a safe space to go to, they will feel empowered and supported, making recovery a bit easier.

Recovery is possible. If you believe your child or partner needs eating disorder treatment, the best thing you can do is get them to an eating disorder assessment or call The Emily Program at 888-364-5977. From there, they will be recommended to a level of care and can start their road to recovery. 



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