How to be a Better Ally to a Friend with an Eating Disorder

Apr 25, 2022

Throughout our lives, there are moments that we encounter where we would do anything to be better prepared. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned among us can find it challenging to know what to say when confronted with a difficult situation.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon now for our teens and tweens to run into situations involving disordered eating within their friend groups. Knowing what to say or do in these situations is difficult enough for adults who understand eating disorders. When our children are entering these situations for the first time, how could we possibly expect them to know the best approach?

As parents, there’s a lot that we can do to help our daughters develop a healthy approach to food and eating. However, that doesn’t mean that she still won’t experience this phenomenon among her peers. Helping her understand and be aware of these situations will enable her to be a better ally.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition “characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.”

Approximately 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men will develop anorexia in their lifetime, and this is just one condition that falls into the category of disordered eating.

Many of the behaviors leading to these mental health conditions develop during the teenage and adolescent years. In fact, one 2010 longitudinal study found that over 5% of adolescent girls met the criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or a binge eating disorder.

Eating disorders can also develop in tandem with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

How Teens and Tweens Can Be an Ally to a Friend with an Eating Disorder

Talking about eating disorders needs to be handled with great care. As parents, we should be making our children aware of these conditions and giving them the opportunity to ask questions.

Here are some strategies and suggestions you can offer during your discussion.

Don’t shame or police a friend’s eating habits

One of the most important things your child can do to help a friend who may have an eating disorder is refrain from shaming or policing their eating. Kids love to tease, and they may think nothing of saying things like:

“You eat like a mouse!”
“Where did you put all that food?”
“Boy, you were hungry!”

Even these simple phrases can cause tension and strain and are best avoided.

Avoid body-related compliments

Instead of focusing on physical or body-related compliments, encourage your daughter to zero in on her friends’ personalities or actions when paying compliments. Saying things like “You’re such a great friend” or “I love when you make me laugh” are great alternatives.

Skip conversations about weight or food

Instead of trying to navigate through thorny conversations about weight or food, it’s best to skip over these topics entirely.

Encourage them to seek help

There are many resources that are specifically dedicated to helping teens and tweens who may be struggling with disordered eating. You don’t have to have your daughter memorize all these resources, but making her aware that they exist will allow her to easily offer them to a friend in need.

Here are some resources that may help:

National Eating Disorder Association (They offer support over phone, text, and online chat)
• Australia’s Kids Helpline

By opening up a conversation with your daughter about eating disorders, you can help her learn to be a better ally for any friend suffering from these conditions. No one in her life needs to experience this alone.