Supporting your loved one in distress

It can be hard watching someone you love and care for in distress, and unfortunately, it’s not always easy to provide comfort for them when they are experiencing such intense and intrusive thoughts. 

The comforting news for parents and carers is, there are ways you can support your loved one in these moments which will help minimise their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. 

Everyone's needs are different

Dealing with intense emotions of an eating disorder for families and carers

Everyone copes differently and how people like to receive support may vary.  It’s important to speak with your loved one and work out how the support you are giving works for them.  

Just like love languages, the effectiveness of support can depend on how they like to receive it.

Understanding how people receive support can provide great insight into helping them in times of distress.  

Some people may need:

  • physical comfort such as a hug, your presence or something to hold
  • reassurance that it’s going to be okay or that you’re there for them 
  • distractions such as getting out of the house or using humour. 


Ways of providing support may be trial and error, but it will help create some go-to strategies that work. 

What you say can greatly benefit someone struggling with intrusive thoughts so here are some ways you can help combat their thoughts.

When your loved one tells you they don’t want to be alive anymore

It’s often that the pain of living is too much.  Just like running a marathon or becoming seriously injured, the pain can be unbearable with no clear end point.  

If your loved one expresses that they want the pain to end, let them know it will pass and that it is temporary.  

Don’t make them feel guilty or ungrateful for not seeing or appreciating what they have in life; nothing matters when pain feels unbearable and unfortunately the things that used to bring them joy, such as sport or adventures, don’t anymore.  

Let them know that even though right now living doesn’t seem like an option, it won’t always feel that way.  Remind them that reasons to live are there – they just may not be able to see them yet.

When your loved one says they are gaining weight by the second…

…these thoughts feel like facts. Sitting with feelings of disgust or discomfort can be incredibly hard and can elicit anger towards the person feeding them. 

Know that your loved one isn’t angry at you – they are angry at the fact they are eating .. no matter who it is feeding them; it’s not personal.  

Let them know that food is safe, that there is no danger and that it won’t hurt them.  

Let them know they can trust their body – that eating food is a normal and necessary part of life for all beings.  

Make sure their feelings are genuinely validated; despite being irrational, the fear is real and intense, so it’s best to focus on the feelings of fear rather than the thoughts because logic can’t out-logic irrational thoughts. 

When your loved one says they hate you…

…they don’t – they hate that you are fighting their eating disorder.  As a parent or carer, it can be difficult hearing this, and even harder for the person experiencing that anger because of the shame they often feel for saying it. 

Let your loved one know that:

  •  you will never give up on them despite how they feel towards you. 
  •  even though you may not understand and that you are asking them to do things that are frightening and challenging, you will keep them safe and will always be there for them.  


Providing love in times of anger and rage can help de-escalate your loved one’s behaviour and will eventually help them to understand that, despite their current beliefs about themselves, they are loved and will continue to be loved, no matter what.  

When your loved one says they feel fat...

…their feelings are real and intense and can override their confidence, self-esteem and hope.  

Feeling this way is invasive and uncomfortable.

Gently remind them it’s their eating disorder mindset directing their attention to their body so it can remain in control, and that what they are seeing and feeling isn’t reality. 

This can be grounding. 


self esteem and distress caused by an eating disorder

It can feel comforting to learn from a trusted ‘other’ that how they see themselves isn’t reality and these thoughts actually come from the mind, not the body. 

Let them know just how powerful the body is and what it can do. 

It’s a vessel to take you through life and contains so much more than just muscle, fat and bones. It contains your soul, your love and allows you to breathe and experience life and joy, purpose and meaning.  

Highlight to your loved one the amazing work that their body actually does, rather than focusing on its physical appearance. 

When your loved one says they want to hurt themselves…

…they are generally overwhelmed with feeling such intense emotions and the only way they feel they can cope is by harming themselves.

In these moments let them know:

  • that you understand that the pain they are feeling is real and valid. Help redirect them in other ways, such as screaming or punching a pillow or punching bag, to release their build-up of energy.  
  •  that you are there for them during these times and that the feeling will pass.

If your loved one tells you they are a horrible person and they feel like they don’t deserve to exist…

Let them know that;

  • no matter what anyone has done or said, every person is worthy of living because they exist.   
  • the world needs them because they provide uniqueness, their own spin on life and can share so much with their family, friends, community and the world. 
  • it would be so awful to be feeling this way however the truth is, they are loved and needed. Despite them not being able to see it, tell them YOU can see it, and support them to find practical ways of expressing their pain as it can be intense, debilitating and overwhelming. 

Also, tell them you won’t leave them alone in their distress and will ride the wave of emotions alongside them.

Unconditional love – a note from someone with lived experience

Each individual’s eating disorder tells them different things and they may need different ways to receive comfort.  In my experience, I took my anger out on my parents because they were the ones who were challenging my eating disorder, and at the time, I felt I truly hated them.  I remember telling the security guards to not let my parents visit me in hospital.  When they asked why, I screamed “because they don’t love me and I hate them”.  They then asked me what my parents had done to make me hate them and I sat in silence because I couldn’t think of a single thing.  They had done nothing but love me despite all my remarks and outbursts of anger and I am so grateful for their persistence, despite how upsetting it was for them.  My parents spoke out of love when they were receiving my hatred and I eventually knew that they truly loved me because they had never given up on me and helped me get through. 

Over time, my parents found effective strategies to provide support and words that comforted me in times of distress.  I hope some of these strategies and words of support can also help you support your own loved one.

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