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Supporting vs. Enabling: Do’s and Don’ts for Families and Supporters of People in Eating Disorder Recovery

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To get a head start on National Eating Disorder Awareness week, today’s post comes to us from Gillian Tanz, Assistant Clinical Director at Monte Nido River Towns. Gillian discusses the do’s and don’ts of supporting a family member or friend who is in eating disorder recovery. Thank you, Gillian, for sharing your knowledge with us at www.rtor.org. — Veronique Hoebeke, Associate Editor 

Supporting a person with an eating disorder can be a difficult thing to do. How do you know whether you are supporting your loved one in their recovery process or enabling their eating disorder? This theme comes up again and again at Monte Nido River Towns, the adult residential eating disorder treatment program in Westchester County where I am the Assistant Clinical Director. Below are some helpful guidelines I’ve acquired from the families, clients, and staff I’ve worked with over the years.

Eating disorders are serious illnesses with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you know or suspect you have a loved one suffering from an eating disorder, it is extremely important to help them get into treatment and support them during their recovery.

Do’s and Don’ts for Families and Supporters of People in Eating Disorder Recovery

Do: Educate yourself about eating disorders. The more you know about what your friend or family member is going through, the better you can support them. Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one questions about their unique experience with an eating disorder as everyone is different.

See my list of Eating Disorder Resources at the end of this post.

Don’t: Talk about or evaluate your body or other people’s bodies in front of someone in recovery. This goes for compliments as well as criticisms. For example, noting that a celebrity looks great because she has lost weight can send a message that what you value about others is their appearance. Nor should you talk about dieting or weight in front of someone in recovery either. These messages are subtle but insidious, and it takes practice to become aware of them.

 Do: Ask to be involved in your loved one’s treatment. One of the most important components of eating disorder recovery is developing a support network of people who understand how to help. Many people with eating disorders use it as a way to cope with difficult emotions, thoughts, or events. Using food to exercise control over their situation is a strategy that may seem helpful at first but soon turns into a real problem. To move away from the disorder, the person must begin to rely on friends and family for emotional support instead of relying on their eating disorder. This is what we often call “putting the eating disorder out of a job.”

Many people who live with eating disorders feel high levels of shame and experience stigma from the outside world. Joining with your loved one and engaging in therapy to the degree in which they are comfortable sends a message of empathy, acceptance, and love that helps them move past those feelings of shame.

Don’t: Make changes in your own life to accommodate the eating disorder. At Monte Nido, we talk about a person’s Healthy Self and an Eating Disordered Self. For example, a client of mine once told me her family would stay home and watch TV with her instead of going out to eat at a restaurant as restaurants made her (Eating Disordered Self) uncomfortable. While this seems like a supportive gesture, the family allowed her Eating Disordered Self to call the shots. This enabled her to keep using disordered behaviors with no negative consequences.

Another reason not to accommodate the eating disorder is because it is exhausting. Supporters who go out of their way to appease the disorder can find themselves feeling “burnt out” and even resentful of their loved one. To prevent this, explain your personal boundaries to your loved one in recovery during a calm conversation and ask for his or her understanding and cooperation. This is a great way to keep yourself healthy so you can be supportive to your loved one as well.

Do: Get your own support. This can be from many sources such as a support group, a therapist, a friend, or a member of clergy. Some treatment facilities offer support groups just for loved ones of their clients for this reason. It is important to recognize that getting your own support can help the person you love who is suffering from an eating disorder. Much like the way that on an airplane, you’re instructed to put your own air mask on before helping others, you must take care of yourself before you can support someone else.

 Don’t: Give up hope. Sustained and permanent recovery from an eating disorder is possible. The road to being fully recovered is not easy, but the presence of loving supporters is essential to progress on that journey.


Recommended Eating Disorder Resources


Gillian Tanz, LCSW
Assistant Clinical Director
Monte Nido River Towns


If you are concerned that you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, it is important to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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1 thoughts on “Supporting vs. Enabling: Do’s and Don’ts for Families and Supporters of People in Eating Disorder Recovery

  1. Denise Vestuti, Resource Specialist says:

    Gillian, thank you for your thoughtful and informative piece on supporting a family member or friend in their eating disorder recovery. I am truly appreciative of you sharing your expertise and wisdom with us especially as February Is Eating Disorder Month.

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