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Ways of helping a family member overcome eating disorder

When families first realize that a member has developed eating disorders many of them find it difficult to confront the person directly with her / his problems. This can be due to the fear that it will cause an outburst of anger, increase resistance to change, reinforce withdrawal of the person, or stop eating completely. Families need to understand that resistance in acknowledging one's problem is common and it is essential for the families to help the person become aware of her / his eating problems regardless of whether he / she is ready to deal with the condition.

The timing chosen for discussion of the eating problem between you and the involved person is critical. You should choose a moment of privacy free from distraction. It is important for you to show your genuine concern about the problem and your readiness to understand, support and help her / him. Your expression of concerns may be welcome if your timing is right and the person may be ready to acknowledge the problem. However your concerns could be ignored if she / he is not ready for a change and in such a situation you should help her / him to take responsibility for doing something constructive about the problem. You should let her / him know the problem will be discussed later when she / he is ready and you care about her / him though you cannot convince her / him to get help at the present moment. Action should be taken to help the person if the eating disorder develops into a more serious condition, such as severe weight loss or the development of significant physical problems, whether the person is ready to discuss it or not. Professional help should be sought.

Certain skills would be useful when you communicate with a family member with an eating disorder:

  • Choose a good time and a good place to talk
  • Try to relax
  • Use the right tone of voice and posture
  • Speak in a simple and clear language
  • Be caring and non-judgmental
  • Listen to his / her views, don't feel that you have to come up with solutions
  • Validate his / her feelings
  • Show respect for his / her feelings
  • Make empathic statements
  • Ask questions if you do not understand
  • Be open and honest about his / her feelings
  • Learn to feel comfortable expressing negative feelings
  • Avoid criticism
  • Avoid power struggles around eating
  • Avoid comments to do with physical appearance, weight and food which could trigger a dramatic outburst

Living with people with an eating disorder, families will face different day-to-day issues related to their eating behaviour and their mood swings. Please try out the following exercise to identify the appropriate actions for each of the issues. Please click on the options to indicate whether you would agree with the actions.

Helping a beloved family member to take control of eating disorders
I should sacrifice my social activities and spend most of my time looking after the suffering family member.
My family should adjust our meal times and choose the type of food to eat according to the preference of the family member affected by eating disorders .
I should keep a record of the food consumed by him/her or ask what she / he has taken as this will remind her / him about maintaining a healthy eating habit .
Helping family members with an eating disorder to cope with mealtimes
I would get angry when he / she refuses to eat .
Conversation during mealtime should focus on eating behaviour.
Most of the time I force him / her to eat verbally or physically.
Helping your suffering family member to overcome fear
I should cook large quantities of his / her favorite foods when she / he starts to eat more.
Helping the suffering family member to cope with mood swings
If my family member is upset and has lost control I should not leave him / her alone and should take control of the situation.
Aware of the need for firmness and care
I find it difficult to manage the irrational behaviours of suffering family members in a firm manner.
Responding to bulimic behaviours
A bulimic person can be helped to reduce the temptation of bulimic behaviours by using the following strategies:

avoid cooking too much food

avoid buying large packets of snack foods

discourage bingeing at home

discourage the use of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills

require the person to replace the household food eaten during binges at her / his own expense

require the person to clean the bathroom and return it to its original state after vomiting

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