When Someone You Love Has an Eating Disorder

The causes and contributors to eating disorders are many and complex, and loved ones find eating disorders extremely difficult to understand. Seeing someone you care about starve or damage her body is stressful. But it is never a simple matter that can be solved by telling the person just to eat. The food is just a symptom, a way to avoid facing problems more directly or to feel in control when the rest of life feels out of control.

For Parents

As a parent, you look forward to many events in the life of your child: birthdays, graduation, college, perhaps even marriage and grandchildren. One thing a mother or father never anticipates is their child developing an eating disorder. Unfortunately, eating disorders are an epidemic throughout America, especially in young people. Although the average age of onset is 14, children are being diagnosed today as young as seven or eight.

Throughout our decades of offering anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder treatment, we have interacted with hundreds of families, and thousands of parents. Most of them were just like you: they loved their daughter and did the very best they could in raising her. When she was diagnosed with an eating disorder, they were stunned. That’s because eating disorders are often so difficult to detect. What’s more, a common trait among those with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder is a high level of secrecy and dishonesty.

Family Therapy

Your initial response may be to try to contain the eating disorder within the family system, but that’s a mistake. Don’t keep the eating disorder a secret. This implies it is something to be ashamed of, and secrecy is contrary to recovery. You need outside support.


For Partners, Spouses, Siblings, and Friends

It’s hard when someone we love is hurting. An eating disorder isn’t just about food or appearance, it’s a coping strategy. When you live with someone who has an eating disorder, it can be very difficult to stay silent, but attempts to help aren’t necessarily welcome if the individual isn’t ready to admit she has a problem. For siblings, life is turned upside down and it’s easy to resent the attention your sibling gets for what you may see as simply bad behavior or “acting out.” For a spouse or a partner of someone with an eating disorder, the condition affects your relationship and puts a strain on the entire family. How can you raise your concerns in a positive way and make sure your needs are getting met, too?

Start by checking out the resources on this page to find out how to offer help and support. You can also share information and facts you find here with your loved one, but in the end, you’ll need to accept that it will ultimately be their decision whether or not to seek help. Whatever they decide, make sure you take care of yourself. You can’t help your loved one if you let your mental or physical health suffer because of their condition.

You can also visit our blog for helpful articles on a wide range of topics related to eating disorders and find support through our Family Program.

How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

The truth is, far too many women and girls die from eating disorders. While people can (and do!) recover from eating disorders, professional help is almost always required. Unfortunately, the longer symptoms are denied or ignored, the more difficult recovery will be. If you or someone you know suffers from a possible eating disorder, it’s important to seek help immediately.

Consult with a primary care provider and, if indicated, consider outpatient treatment with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. However, if your loved one has an eating disorder, has been in therapy for many months and is not improving, please consider allowing us to provide the care that she requires. The idea of inpatient or residential treatment may be daunting, but sometimes, that is what it takes to save a life. We can guarantee that she will receive the best possible treatment in an environment of compassion, love, and support at The Meadows Ranch.

Eating Disorder Warning Signs

Are you worried someone you love may be in danger of developing an eating disorder?


Offering Support

Eating disorders don’t just happen to individuals. They impact family and friends as well.

And while loved ones want to help, it can be hard to know how to best support someone battling an eating disorder. Why not start here?

Educate Yourself – Eating disorders are not merely about not eating or vanity. It’s important to understand that an eating disorder is a coping strategy that the individual uses to deal with problems that may be too painful to deal with directly.

Be Patient – When you approach the individual for the first time, do not be surprised if they reject your expression of concern. They may even react with anger and denial. There is a lot of shame and pain that goes along with having an eating disorder. It’s also important not to rush the person, and instead recognize that it will take time for the person to make changes. In the end, the decision to get help is theirs.

Be Compassionate – Eating disorders are a complex problem, and food and weight issues are only symptoms of something deeper. It’s important to understand that the person would prefer to have healthier coping mechanisms and is doing the best they can at the moment.

Be Encouraging – Encourage the person to see themselves as more than their eating disorder. Do this by talking about other aspects of your lives, and of life more generally. Affirm their strengths and interests that are unrelated to food or physical appearance.

Be Non-Judgmental – It’s important to express your own needs in the relationship, without blaming or shaming the other person. Support them by validating the healthy changes that the person does makes, however small they may be.

Set Realistic Expectations – Recovery is usually a painful and challenging process, and patients don’t return home from residential treatment “cured.” Full recovery takes time, and slips may occur. This is not the end of the world and does not mean then need to go back to square one and start the recovery process all over. Only if eating-disorder behaviors become the norm day after day does it indicate someone is probably headed for a relapse.

For more advice on how to help support a loved one with an eating disorder, read our blog post “Seven Things NOT to do When a Loved One has an Eating Disorder.”

family week

The Role of Family in Recovery

Family involvement in the recovery process is crucial, and we devote set times for family visits, including lectures and workshops. Family dynamics often play a role in eating disorders, so it’s essential to provide a space for the family to communicate efficiently to heal.

Although it may be the daughter with the actual disorder, she is probably not the only family member who may need to make changes. Therefore, all family members need to be fully committed to working on the aspects of their lives that could benefit from careful attention and growth. Parents should strongly consider participating in family or marital therapy to reinforce their commitment to their daughter’s recovery, to obtain objective feedback about her behaviors, and to grow in their relationship with their daughter.

Whoever is going to be that support system after treatment, family therapy and participation in Family Week at The Meadows Ranch will give you tools to use as you move forward.


Family Week at The Meadows Ranch

At The Meadows Ranch, we teach patients and their families the importance of a good support system and how to create it. We offer two five-day programs each month for adult patients and one for those in our adolescent program. Our goal is to have everyone participate in family week.

During Family Week at The Meadows Ranch, loved ones receive extensive education on communication, eating disorders, and relationships. They also have the opportunity to do an experiential learning session with The Meadows Equine Therapy team, and experience a full-day intensive “truth and love” session, where they and their loved one in recovery can share thoughts and feelings in a way they may not have been able to before.

Everything we do during the week has a purpose. It is all in the interest of building safety and working on opportunities for the family to practice what they will need when their loved one leaves treatment. Snacks and lunch are eaten together every day as family – this one of the scariest things for those in treatment, and we want to help them navigate it.

Attendance is capped at two family members or loved ones per patient, and participants are expected to attend all five days of programming. The treatment team can work with you to determine who would benefit most from this experience and what would be most helpful for the patient’s ongoing recovery.

Families come with their own shame and guilt. You would have walked through hot coals to take this disease away for your loved one if you could have. Family Week allows you to be able to release some of this so you can be a part of the healing process and move forward together.

Hope and Healing

The Meadows Ranch offers an intensive, experiential-based 45-day treatment program for women and girls who are struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, have a dual diagnosis, or who have failed past treatments. In a safe and nurturing community composed of their peers, our patients are guided on a journey of recovery by examining the underlying causes of their eating disorders and any co-occurring issues. The goal is for them to gain the courage to face difficult issues, including grief and loss, heal from emotional trauma, and become accountable for their own feelings, behaviors, and recovery. Call us today to find out more.

Call 866-390-5100