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Eating disorders are complex psychological disorders that are often misunderstood by family and peers. 

Lauren Aron, Social Worker and Dewald Louw, Counselling Psychologist at Akeso Montrose Manor Clinic in Cape Town shared their insight on how people can support their loved one's eating disorder recovery.

To start, Aron suggests taking time to learn more about their eating disorder, “The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one, avoid pitfalls, and cope with challenges,” she said.

Listen without expressing judgement, said Louw. “Show that you care by asking about your loved one’s feelings and concerns—and then truly listening. Resist the urge to advise or criticize. Simply let your friend or family member know that they are heard. Even if you don’t understand what they're going through, it’s important to validate your loved one’s feelings.”

Be mindful of triggers. Avoid discussions about food, weight, eating or making negative statements about your own body. But don’t be afraid to eat normally in front of your loved one. It can help set an example of a healthy relationship with food.

Take care of yourself. Don’t become so preoccupied with your loved one’s eating disorder that you neglect your own needs. “Make sure you have your own support, so you can provide it in turn. Whether that support comes from a trusted friend, a support group, or your own therapist, it’s important to have an outlet to talk about your feelings and emotionally recharge. It’s also important to schedule time into your day for relaxing and doing things you enjoy,” she said.

How to encourage your loved one to get help

Most eating disorder sufferers will be scared to get help. They might be afraid that asking for help will result in them gaining weight, getting embarrassed or appearing weak.  Aron said, “The loved one might feel misunderstood and therefore professional support will give them a safe space to express themselves.  It is vital that the loved one also understands the impact their eating disorder has on the rest of the family and that the family is incapable of providing the medical treatment needed to treat such complex disorder.”

Eating disorders can have detrimental effects on a person’s daily functioning - from work life to their social circles. “The loved one should be encouraged to seek help, not only to improve their relationship with food and their body, but also to prevent future escalation of other mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The significance of the negative impact of eating disorders should be clearly communicated to sufferers, to encourage them to seek professional support,” said Aron.

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How to deal with eating disorders in the home and how to support a loved one's recovery

As a parent, there are many things you can do to support your child’s eating disorder recovery—even if they are still resisting treatment, Louw said:

Set a positive example. You have more influence than you think. Instead of dieting, eat nutritious, balanced meals. Be mindful of how you talk about your body and your eating. Avoid self-critical remarks or negative comments about others’ appearance. Instead, focus on the qualities on the inside that really make a person attractive.

Make mealtimes fun. Try to eat together as a family as often as possible. Even if your child isn’t willing to eat the food you’ve prepared, encourage them to join you at the table. Use this time together to enjoy each other’s company, rather than talking about problems. Meals are also a good opportunity to show your child that food is something to be enjoyed rather than feared.

Avoid power struggles over food. Attempts to force your child to eat will only cause conflict and bad feelings and likely lead to more secrecy and lying. That doesn’t mean you can’t set limits or hold your child accountable for their behaviour. But don’t act like the food police.

Encourage eating with natural consequences. While you can’t force healthy eating behaviours, you can encourage them by making the natural consequences of not eating unappealing. For example, if your child won’t eat, they can’t go to dancing class or drive the car because, in their weakened state, it wouldn’t be safe. Emphasize that this isn’t a punishment, but simply a natural medical consequence.

Don’t blame yourself. Parents often feel they must take on responsibility for the eating disorder, which is something they truly have no control over. Once you can accept that the eating disorder is not anyone's fault, you can be freed to take action that is honest and not clouded by what you "should" or "could" have done.