January 4, 2021

How to help someone with anorexia nervosa

It can be challenging when you have a loved one that struggles with an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. Especially, as it is a mental health disorder that also affects the person’s physical health. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to help. These are discussed below.

Understand anorexia nervosa

It is a good idea to read as much information about anorexia as you can. Understanding anorexia and how it works can help you to recognize the ways that your loved one is affected and the ways you can help.

To read more information about anorexia, you can view our pages on anorexia nervosa and getting help for anorexia nervosa.

Help them to feel supported

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder that can make your loved one feel extremely isolated, because others can have a hard time understanding their difficulties. It is important to make sure that you try to understand how this is a problem for them, so that they feel understood and supported. To do this, you can:

Show acceptance

They are most likely struggling with negative and often critical thoughts about themselves. One of the best things you can do is to remind them that they are valued and loved, no matter what.

Separate the person from the disorder

This is very important. It is good to remember that the person is not the disorder. This will allow you to have less feelings of frustration and resentment towards your loved one, because it is not their fault. Your loved one can also recognize that they are not the disorder and can feel less guilty about it.

Be persistent

When supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, it is common for you to receive a lot of resistance. This might happen when you are trying to encourage them towards healthier eating habits or inviting them out to a social event. Try not to feel discouraged and continue to encourage and invite them, even if they refuse.

Help them to find the right support

Encourage them to find support through a GP or therapist. If this involves your young child, you can contact these services. You might:

  • Help them to search for a therapist
  • Help them to book an appointment with a GP or therapist
  • Offer support when they attend appointments (e.g. waiting in the waiting room or attending some sessions if you need to)
  • Help them search for support groups or self-help resources
  • Encourage them to keep attending sessions and to not give up

Know when to get urgent support

When your loved one is dealing with anorexia nervosa, it is good to keep an eye out for signs of self-harm or suicide. If you suspect that your loved one is at risk of hurting themself, you should get them immediate support.

You should contact a GP or the NHS urgent helpline.

Ask them what they need

They may or may not to tell you what they need, but it is always good to ask. They might let you know other ways that you can help them. This way you won’t have to figure it out on your own.

Support them during mealtimes

Mealtime is the most stressful part of the day for a person with an eating disorder. It will be helpful for them if you find ways to make this time less distressing, without enabling the disorder. For example, you might:

  • Plan the meals with them in advance, so that they feel less anxious during mealtime
  • Involve other siblings that can help to distract them
  • Have neutral conversations that do not involve weight, shape or dieting
  • Encourage them to do an enjoyable activity during mealtime (e.g. colouring, watching TV, doing a puzzle)
  • Reassure them that you are there for them

Be patient in difficult situations

When supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, it is common for them to respond with resistance by being  angry or shutting down. It is important for you to not take this personally and realize that it is the eating disorder that is being challenged. Here are some ways that you can manage these situations:

  • Give them some space until they calm down
  • Try to resist the urge to respond back in an angry tone
  • It is reasonable to express your frustrations, but try to do it while they are absent
  • Take some time out to compose yourself during these difficult situations
  • Encourage them in a calm way without putting too much pressure on them
  • Take the time to come up with creative ways to encourage them

Look after yourself too

It is extremely important for you to look after yourself. Whether you are a parent, family member or a friend, you will be in a better position to give help, as long as you are taking care of your own well-being too.

To read more about looking after yourself, see our page on self-care when helping someone else.

List of useful resources

MIND

To read information about helping someone with anorexia nervosa on the MIND website, you can click here to access the link.

Beat eating disorders

To read information about helping someone with an eating disorder on the beat eating disorders website, you can click here to access the link.  

Young Minds

To read advice for carers and parents of young people with eating disorder on the Young Minds website, you can click here to access the link.