How to help a friend with an eating disorder

Wanting to help someone who has an eating disorder can feel like an overwhelming challenge. Various services offer help with eating disorders, but there are also things that you can do to support someone you care for.

This can help if:

  • you think your friend or family member might have an eating disorder

  • you want to know the do’s and don’ts for supporting someone

  • you want to know how to help someone who doesn't want help.

Headless girlfriends sitting on wall holding hands

Services that can help

It can be upsetting when someone you care about has, or may have, an eating disorder. However, you don’t have to try and help them on your own. You can find out more about the support services available to them in each state here.

Dos and don’ts

In supporting someone with an eating disorder, there are a few key things you can do to help.

Do encourage your friend or family member to seek professional help. They may find this process embarrassing or difficult, but reassure them that professional help is the most effective way to treat eating disorders. Offer to help them find the right kind of support, and perhaps accompany them to their first appointment, if they decide to meet with a specialist. People trained specifically to help those with eating disorders can offer unique treatment strategies based on individual circumstances.

Don’t be critical of someone’s appearance. Even better, avoid commenting on a person’s weight or appearance at all. A person with an eating disorder already has quite low self-esteem, so focusing on what they look like won’t help. Most importantly, avoid using insults to try and jolt them out of how they’re feeling. Insults are guaranteed not to work and may even worsen the problem.

Do show compassion and care, and listen to them non-judgmentally. A person with an eating disorder is likely to be experiencing intense levels of emotional pain and self-loathing. Telling them you care about them, and that you’re there to help, is the most effective way of showing your support. Give them space to talk about how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them.

Don’t get frustrated or annoyed by the person’s eating habits or try to force them to eat. Getting angry won’t solve the problem and will likely make the person withdraw even further.

Do reiterate that eating disorders can be treated successfully. An eating disorder isn’t a life sentence. A number of treatments are available to help a person recover. Recovery may not be easy, but it is possible.

Don’t try to guilt-trip the person into feeling bad about their behaviour by focusing on how it’s affecting other people. A person with an eating disorder is probably already feeling guilty, so focusing on the impact they’re having on others is likely to make them withdraw and feel worse. Use ‘I’ statements. For example, “I’m worried about you” rather than “You are making everyone feel worried about you.”

Do be patient. Eating disorders aren’t resolved overnight. People often take a while to change their behaviours. Try not to be upset if a person reverts to their disordered eating. Instead, encourage them to try again and to keep aiming for recovery.

If they don’t want your help

Making the decision to get help can be really difficult. If your friend is finding it hard to accept your offer of help, don’t take it personally. Check out what to do when someone doesn’t want help.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to a parent, teacher or counsellor about what’s going on.

  • Recommend the ReachOut NextStep tool, which offers personalised support options, to the person you’re concerned about.

  • Get in touch with a support service in your area to find out more.