Families can play a crucial role in supporting recovery. While eating disorders are by no means a direct reflection of parents’ or siblings’ approach to food, it is necessary to be self-aware about food or movement. Whether you change rules around eating at the dinner table, how you comment on your own food intake or exercise choices, or even rethink comments about appearance in general, listening to your child and their support team can be incredibly helpful.

By: Elizabeth Foot

Eating disorder recovery takes a village. And while family support is not always available, if it is, family support strengthens a recovery plan. Recovery is overwhelming for those entering and working through it – and understanding how to be a supportive caregiver or sibling can also feel daunting. What do you do? What do you say? What should you not do? What should you avoid saying? As with most difficult things in life, triggers differ by person, so keeping your lines of communication open between you and your loved one (along with their medical support team if they have one) is the first step.

Beyond communication, many strategies and recovery support methods will depend on those in recovery. Some ideas on where to start can look like the following:

Support When it Comes To Meals and Eating Habits

  1. Refrain from commenting on serving sizes or if someone returns for a second serving.

  2. Allow for longer meal times, and encourage everyone to check in with their hunger cues throughout meals.

  3. Limit comments about your appearance or weight around your loved one.

  4. Limit commenting on others’ bodies in a way that emphasizes shape or size. If you must comment, focus on how happy or comfortable someone might look instead of how flattering a particular outfit might be.

  5. Verbally challenge yourself or other family members if they comment on weight, diet, exercise as punishment, or anything that feels counter to recovery. Feel free to take action in these situations.

    • Make like comments like “If that meal/snack serves you at the moment, that’s okay!” or “Not all foods need to be for value other than enjoyment,” or “There’s nothing wrong with listening to your body’s needs. You can enjoy what you want without feeling the need to ‘run it off.’”

Support When It Comes To Movement 

  1. Focus on movement as a way to care for one’s body, not as a punishment.

  2. Suggest going for walks together, either before or after a meal. This movement can help with stress or digestion, increasing endorphins and body movement freedom.

  3. Remind yourself and loved ones that bodies require rest, and “off days” should be taken.

Support When it Comes to Respecting Boundaries 

  1. Depending on where your child or loved one is in recovery, denial around habits might be high. Be empathetic but stern when confrontations arise around changes they are making. 

  2. It can be hard to feel like you are causing your child distress, but if their medical support team suggests changes, you will only help them in the long run by supporting those changes. If a child refuses to implement a change, you can always negotiate. Something of the change is better than no attempt at all. For example, if increased caloric intake is the goal and your child will eat half of their snack but not all of it, that is okay. 

  3. Listen to what your child or loved one says makes them most comfortable. Some individuals might want you at the table with them even if you’ve finished eating, while others might want to eat alone. Working with the support team and your child to assess and create these boundaries will be incredibly important.

Eating disorder recovery looks different for everyone, which means familial support will also vary. This support is also likely to change throughout recovery, and being able to adapt will make you an even stronger support for your loved one. Checking in with your child/loved one will keep you both on the same page and help set expectations on communicating best and support. Additionally, if your child does have a medical support team – whatever that may look like – making sure to check in with them will also add to your understanding of where your loved one is in recovery and what might be most helpful for you. Finally, check in with yourself. Watching a loved one struggle with an eating disorder can be exhausting, and shouldering some of their recovery can add to the emotional burden. Trust your gut regarding the support you need, and be open to asking for it.

BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™ offers a bi-monthly free virtual support group to provide a supportive forum where members can explore issues, including ambivalence about engaging in treatment, recovery, resources, and treatment options, and knowing when and how to take the next steps toward making change. RSVP for our next group here.

Our admissions team would be happy to answer any questions you may have regarding our programs and services. Book a call below, or read more about our philosophy here.

This post was written by BALANCE Blog Contributor, Elizabeth Foot (she/her).

Elizabeth is currently pursuing her Master’s of Public Health in nutrition and dietetics from the University of Michigan, on track to become a registered dietician. Prior to returning to school, Elizabeth received her B.A. in Public Policy from Hamilton College in 2020.

Since graduating Hamilton, Elizabeth has worked for an infertility insurance company as a marketing associate, has volunteered with Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association (MEDA), and has advocated on Capitol Hill for expanding insurance coverage to registered dietitians as part of the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC). Elizabeth is also a strong supporter of intuitive eating, HAES, and is excited to become a licensed practitioner working in the ED field. In her free time, Elizabeth can be found creating recipes, practicing yoga, or counting down the days until she can get a dog.

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