Helpful vs. Unhelpful words
Young people who are working towards recovery may have things they find helpful and unhelpful; particularly, things people may say.
A common phrase young people find difficult to hear when they are recovering from an eating disorder is: “you look well”. Although this is a normal comment to make, and in other circumstances would be seen as a compliment, an eating disorder can jump on this and interpret it to mean that a person looks “fat”.
Checking in with your loved one on how and when they may want praise or comments can be useful to avoid unexpected blips or arguments.
Other common difficult words are:
If only it were that simple – you know it, they know it. It’s totally natural to feel frustrated with the eating disorder. Perhaps try taking a moment to compose yourself, away from your loved one if you can and need to. Try, “I can see this is hard and at the same time, we need to do this”. If an eating disorder argument or circular conversation begins you can just repeat the statement above – “I can see this is hard and you still need this”. Acknowledging that it is difficult but being firm and calmly reinforcing that the food needs to be eaten.
Some parents find it useful to understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder, which you can read more about on this site; “what it’s like to have an eating disorder”. For quick insights, speaking to someone with an eating disorder is often said to feel like being faced with a plate of your biggest fears.
There is a fine line between praise and affirmation however, praise can imply a power imbalance – the person who praises is the one in the higher position. Affirmation is about a positive acknowledgement of the person’s effort and is supportive and encouraging.
“Well done”, particularly after eating – being told they have done “well” can be difficult for your loved one to hear as they are already dealing with huge amounts of distress and guilt about challenging the eating disorder thoughts in order to have eaten. How to acknowledge when your loved one has done what you have asked of them may be something to discuss with your loved one at a calm point away from meal times. Some people may want the effort they have put into eating to be acknowledged and others may not. Perhaps “that was difficult for you” – acknowledging the struggle and then directing them toward an activity to do together or something to distract them.
“I’m here for you”
This is something to say when you are noticing that your loved one is becoming distressed and you would like them to know you have noticed and would like to support. This can be used to open a discussion about how they would like to be supported.
A neutral expression that allows you to show your appreciation in a non emotional way that the eating task is complete, while acknowledging your loved one’s effort.
Checking out words which may be helpful or unhelpful with your loved one, away from food or meal times, may be a useful approach.
Beat Blog posts have many contributions from people with lived experiences of eating disorder.
Emily: how an eating disorder can twist compliments
Hannah: what NOT to say to someone recovering from an eating disorder
Hannah: 10 helpful things to say to someone who has an eating disorder