What should you say when a young person confides in you about an eating disorder?

However you feel, take the news calmly

The most difficult way to hear the news of an eating disorder, is directly from the sufferer themselves.  Perhaps they’ve been secretly making themselves sick for months and you didn’t have the slightest clue.  As they confess what they’ve been up to, as their teacher, friend or parent you might feel disgusted, angry, frustrated or any one of a number of other emotions.  Please try not to let those emotions show.  If you possibly can, try to take the news calmly and openly.  You have no idea how hard it was to make this disclosure and a negative reaction is likely to completely shake their confidence and more or less instantly break down the trusting relationship you’ve built up.


Don’t talk, listen

Listening is the very best thing you can possibly do right now.  If a sufferer has come to you it’s because they trust you and feel a need to share their secret with someone.  Just let them talk.  Ask occasional questions if you need to in order to encourage them to keep exploring their feelings and opening up to you.  Just letting them pour out what they’re thinking will make a huge difference and marks a huge first step in recovery.  Up until now they may not have admitted even to themselves that they have a problem.


Try to understand, even if it’s hard

The concept of an eating disorder can seem completely alien if you’ve never suffered from one.  You may find yourself wondering why on earth someone would do these things to themselves, but don’t explore those feelings with the sufferer.  Instead listen hard to what they’re saying, try to understand why they feel the need to use food as a coping mechanism and slowly start to understand what steps they might be ready to take in order to start making some changes. 


Realise that this is something completely beyond their control

A lot of people have an overly simplistic view of eating disorders and think that sufferers just need to pull themselves together and eat more or stop purging or eat less.  You need to understand that sufferers would like nothing more than to be able to do just that – but they can’t.  Having an eating disorder is like having a puppet master.  Your every move is determined by this evil monster of a disease that is quite literally eating away at your ability to be yourself and make your own decisions.  So cut them some slack and realise that recovery will probably be a long and slow process.


Understand that even if they want your help, they’ll find it hard to accept

Despite the fact that a sufferer has confided in you and may even have expressed a desire to get on top of their illness, that doesn’t mean they’ll readily accept help.  The eating disorder puppet master will ensure they resist any form of help for as long as they possibly can.  Don’t be offended or upset if your offers of help are met with anger, indifference or insolence, it’s the disease talking.


Don’t expect too much too soon

Recovery is a slow process.  Don’t expect to see changes any time soon.  The first huge hurdle for sufferers to overcome is getting to a point where they’re ready to even consider accepting help.  All you can do is continue to listen and offer your support and positive outlook as the fight plods on.


Keep a brick wall handy for knocking your head against

If you regularly interact with someone with an eating disorder you simply have to expect to end up pulling your hair out.  It’s the most frustrating thing in the world for all involved.  You might reach a point where you want them to get better, they want to get better and yet the eating disorder still has such a tight grip that no progress seems to be being made.  With perseverance and consistent support it IS possible to beat it.  Try not to waiver no matter how many dents you’ve made in that brick wall with your head.


Be aware that progress isn’t always linear

Recovering from an eating disorder can be very much a question of two steps forward and one step back.  There will be bad days, maybe even bad weeks or bad months.  Always bear in mind what the starting point was and what the end goal is and even during a wobble appreciate that the general trajectory is the right one.  Try to understand the cause for any setbacks as it can often be unclear, but if you’re able to get to the crux of the matter you can help to prevent a repeat situation.


Don’t get angry, it won’t help

However frustrated you are, keep calm.  Anger never helps and will just drive a divide between you and the person who’s put their trust in you.


Don’t let it define how you think of them

Most importantly of all, always remember how you thought of this person before you knew they had an eating disorder.  Hold onto that thought tightly and try to continue to see them in that way.  It can be very easy to let an eating disorder define a person but that is a dangerous territory to enter. As soon as life is ALL about the eating disorder, you know that the eating disorder is winning.  Do all you can to keep the bits you love most about this person alive.  It will help them to see their way through this difficult time if they can remember what it is to be happy and what it is that really defines them.


Further Support

If you would like further support, Pooky can deliver an eating disorder training session at your school or college.

You may also be interested in other free eating disorder resources I have uploaded:

Eating Disorder Resources


  1. Heather says

    Good piece. Thank goodness that more is known about such disorders nowadays. I suffered greatly as a teenager, and have known recurring echoes of this struggle throughout my life. Then, there was no help offered. Now, you can talk to wise people about your struggle.

    • admin says

      Thank you Heather – sorry to hear that you had such a difficult time. I hope that you are in recovery now? It is helpful to remember how far we’ve come occasionally… it feels like there is still so little advice, but as you point out, we have come on in leaps and bounds.


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