When your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder it feels like you have been thrown off your little family ship into an ocean… in the middle of a hurricane…with no life raft…and you do not know how to swim. The effects of the illness reach far outside of your own four walls, the waves crash over your extended family and your friends too. Knowing how to help a friend or family member when their child is diagnosed with an eating disorder is difficult- the illness is extremely isolating and frankly terrifying. Here are a few tips to help you find a way to support and love your friend especially in the first few months. Remember though that it can take years for somebody with anorexia to recover so if your friend has been caring for a loved on for a long time, she still needs your friendship and support.
1. Don’t judge your friend and spend energy or gossip trying to work out what could have triggered the illness in her child. A very unhelpful doctor in the 70’s who is not worthy of being named, wrote a book which blamed parenting for anorexia, we all carry the legacy of this lie. Arm yourself with the latest, scientific facts. Anorexia is a brain based disorder that has a strong genetic element. Here is a quick-read list of facts: http://www.feast-ed.org/?page=NineTruths If you have more time then read: Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown (available on Amazon).
2. This is a great book to buy for your friend- ‘Throwing Starfish Across the Sea: A pocket-sized care package for the parents of someone with an eating disorder’ from Amazon. And tell her about Around the Dinner Table - this is an online community of carers and they have collectively saved thousands of children by supporting their parents including my own. http://www.aroundthedinnertable.org
3. Currently, the most effective form of treatment is called Family Based Therapy (FBT). This form of therapy will take up all of your friend’s time and energy. Understand that she is in a war, she is fighting every second of the day to save the life of her child- she is tired and she is afraid. Anorexia kills up to 20% of it’s victims through suicide or health complications, the fight is real. It is not that your friend doesn’t care about your problems anymore, she does, she cries at night about how little she can be there for you. Understand that it will take every little bit of her family’s time and strength to beat the eating disorder. She has not forgotten you.
4. If the child is in hospital to be stabilised medically, do offer to visit but be prepared not to see the child, often seeing people can be too much for them. Do go and see your friend, even just for 15 minutes, perhaps armed with a Starbucks. Understand that 15 minutes may be all she has to give yet it can restore her for another 24 hours- be prepared to drive to the hospital, pay the extortionate parking fees and only stay for 10 minutes.
5. Practice a neutral face- you might be shocked when you see the child for the first time. If their weight has dropped, they may look very ill. Eating disorders and self harm are a common combination. Their arms may be criss crossed with cuts or scratches. Prepare yourself for this and then it may be less of shock for you.
6. Offer to look after your friends other children, take them to the movies or bowling, take them home with you where it is calmer and not a war zone. They need nurturing and support as much as the ill child does but when it is a life or death situation, the other children often suffer alone. My friends took my non-eating disorder daughter camping with them and let her stay for weekends. She still talks fondly of those times, a little break from the sadness at home.
7. Feeding a child with anorexia back to health can be a messy, shouting, chair throwing, door slamming, suicide prevention business. Your friend may not be able to have you over for coffee or even meet up outside of the house for a long while. Make plans with her but don’t be offended if she has to cancel plans at the last minute.
8. How practical do you want to get? Offer to collect her washing and drop it back without asking to come in for a cup of tea. Or offer to pay for a cleaner or offer to clean her bathrooms for her. Offer to drive her other children to school.
9. Send texts, emails, FB messages- set an alarm on your phone and send one every evening/day. Find out when the toughest times of the day are and send a message then- in our house the tough times were at every meal and late at night. When I heard my phone ping and it was a simple ‘Love you’, it made me feel supported and thought of. This can make all the difference when you feel alone and afraid.
10. Do offer to come and sit with the ill child so that your friend can go and have her hair cut or go the doctor herself. Don’t be offended if she says no, just having the option helps her feel less trapped in her own house.
11. Buy small gifts that can distract the ill child for example, beautiful colouring books and pens, simple crafts, jigsaw puzzles, embroidery sets- think simple but beautiful. A friend gave us some simple embroidery sets and although we had never done it before, it was a great time filler and relaxing activity. I would not have had time to go and buy these and they were a wonderful, thoughtful gift.
12. Sometimes it is very difficult to stand back and watch how difficult the child’s behaviour is and how it affects the parents, especially in the first stages of anorexia. Try to separate the child you know from the illness. Most of the behaviour is due to the anorexia. It can often make your friend feel more isolated if she has to sensor all she tells you in order to prevent you from judging her child.
One of life's biggest privileges is to be blessed with friendships that celebrate the joys and carry you in the tough times. If you feel that these tips might hep a friend then feel free to share this with them. And if you have something to add to the list, perhaps something somebody did for you or you for a friend, then let me know and I can add it.