This page collates information from a number of Australian eating disorder and mental health organisations and services about the best way to have a conversation with someone you are worried about. To access a printable factsheet, please see the Eating Disorders Alliance of Australia How to start the conversation.
It can be hard to know what to say or do when you think that someone you care about is having trouble with their eating and/or their feelings about their body. This may be a family member, a friend, a colleague, or a peer. Accessing help early in the illness journey is really important and you can play a key role in helping them get the help they need.
This page provides guidance on what to look for and what to do if you are concerned that someone might have an eating disorder and are not currently accessing any help for it. You might notice changes in someone's behaviour, the way they seem to be thinking, or you might notice physical changes.
What to look for
The warning signs of an eating disorder can be physical, psychological, and/or behavioural. There are a number of warning signs that someone might be struggling with body image or eating disorder problems. Some are listed below and you can find further information on our webpage here.
- Dieting behaviours such as restricting the type or amount of foods eaten or going for long periods of time without eating
- Rigid ideas or rituals around food and eating
- Frequently thinking or talking about eating, food, body shape, and/or weight
- Avoiding eating meals in a social setting
- Wanting to control the types of food eaten and cooked at home
- Weight loss, gain, and/or fluctuation
- Feeling or saying bad things about their body
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Feeling tired a lot of the time
- Changes in mood, including anxiety and low mood
- Eating in secret
Remember that people experiencing an eating disorder are often afraid to ask for help. They may already be spending a lot of energy trying to hide the eating disorder, and it may come as a surprise when you talk to them about it.
When to talk to someone
Access to treatment and support early in the illness is important. Research tells us that early intervention can lead to better outcomes for the person, including faster recovery and better quality of life. If you are concerned about someone, it is best to speak with them as soon as possible.
It is important to prepare for the conversation. The more you can learn about eating disorders and support options, the better you will be able to understand and help the person. They may be experiencing high levels of anxiety, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Alternately, they may not recognise that they have a problem with their eating and/or body image or may think what they are going through is normal. It is important to understand that people’s experiences are different and take this into consideration if the person responds negatively to you talking with them about your concerns.
How to start a conversation
Create an environment for the conversation where the person feels safe, calm, and heard. For example, it can be helpful to speak with the person in a familiar environment, such as at home, in a quiet place on school grounds, or in a place you often go together (as long as you can have a private conversation there).
Below are some tips on how to create a conversation space that can support a comfortable and safe connected conversation.
- Choose to meet with the person on their own in a place that is private, quiet and comfortable
- Choose a time when the person is feeling calm without additional pressures or anxiety
- Reach out in an open, non-judgmental, and compassionate way. Assure the person that you are raising this with them because you care and want to help, and that you’re ready to listen.
- Avoid bringing up the topic if either of you are angry, tired, or emotional
What to say
Some people experiencing an eating disorder may feel fearful to disclose the thoughts, behaviours, and/or feelings associated with the eating disorder. Let them know that you care about them and that you want to help them face the problem and support them.
Below are some helpful tips when talking to someone when you are concerned they may have an eating disorder:
- Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, “I care about you” or “I’m worried about you”
- Make the person feel comfortable and let them know it is safe to talk to you. For example, “I know that it can be hard to talk about this. Thank you for trusting me”.
- Be compassionate: discuss your concerns in an open and honest way, demonstrating respect and kindness, without judgement. For example, “I can hear that things have been really hard for you”.
- Let them know that you care about them and want the best for them
- Encourage them to express how they feel; it is important to listen and understand how they are feeling
- Listen respectfully to what the person has to say and avoid judgment or criticism
- Give the person time to talk about their feelings – don’t rush them through the conversation. For example, “Just take your time. I know that it can be difficult to talk about these things”.
- Acknowledge what they have said and reflect back to them what you have heard. For example, “I understand that you are feeling [insert emotion]. Is that right?”, “Thank you for sharing that with me”.
- Let them know that you are not trying to fix the behaviours or get them to change immediately, but explain that you think that professional support may be helpful. "Have you thought about talking to a professional about what’s happening?”
- Encourage them to seek help and explain that you want to support them as much as possible. You might like to think about how you might be able to support the person to get help. For example, helping them to book an appointment with their GP.
- Focus on what they would like to happen next. For example, “It sounds like things are hard for you right now. I’m here for you and want to help. What would you like to do now?” and “What have you tried already?”
- You might need to talk to the person more than once. Be patient but persistent
What to avoid saying and/or doing
There are some words or approaches that can be unhelpful when speaking to someone about your concerns. These include:
- Interrupting the person when they are speaking
- Making accusations and/or judgments
- Focusing on weight, food intake or physical appearance
- Getting into details about food and weight or attempting to diagnose
- Implying or suggesting blame for the eating disorder (e.g. “you” statements)
- Using emotive statements (e.g., “Look at what you are doing to me/our family”)
- Attempting to give immediate advice, i.e. jumping to solutions before the person has had a chance to talk
- Providing simple solutions for overcoming the eating disorder. For example, “Just eat normally”.
- Making generalisations (e.g., “You never do this” or “You always do this”)
- Expressing anger if the conversation is not going as you had hoped
- Reassuring the person that their concern about their body/food is unfounded “But you look great, there is no need to do all of that” or “We all binge sometimes”
- Continuing to discuss the topic when it is not going well. It is better to let them know that you will talk to them about it at another time. Assure them that you are there to support them and will be there for them when they are ready to talk about it.
Where to access further support
It is never advised to ‘watch and wait’. If you or someone you know may be experiencing an eating disorder, accessing support and treatment is important. Early intervention is key to improved health and quality of life outcomes. A GP is a good first contact to seek support and access eating disorder treatment.
- If you are a parent or carer of a young person, we encourage you to access the information checklist on the Feed Your Instinct website. This will help you prepare for next steps, including talking with your GP.
- If the person you are concerned about is over the age of 18, you might encourage them to check out Reach Out and Recover information and pathways to access support.
- If you are feeling anxious about having the conversation, we encourage you to contact the Butterfly Foundation National helpline. Their counsellors offer free and confidential support over the phone, via email, and by online chat.
The following lived experience organisations can also provide support and guidance:
- Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) offers a free and confidential service, including the EDV Hub, telehealth counselling service, telehealth nurse, peer mentoring, and carer courses.
- Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) - a national not-for-profit organisation run by carers with lived experience, connecting, supporting and educating families and carers of people with eating disorders.
- Eating Disorders Neurodiversity Australia (EDNA) - a neurodivergent-led not-for-profit organisation advocating for neurodiversity-friendly healthcare for neurodivergent people with eating disorders
- Eating Disorders Queensland (EDQ) – a not-for-profit organisation providing integrated eating disorder support services to Queensland individuals and families living with and recovering from an eating disorder, their carers and loved ones.
The Butterfly Foundation: Concerned about someone you know?
Eating Disorders Victoria: How to approach someone with an eating disorder
The InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders: Navigating a difficult conversation
Beyond Blue: How to talk about mental health
Beyond Blue – How to talk to someone you’re worried about
Eating Disorders Victoria: Increasing your understanding of the risk factors and warning signs related to eating, exercise, and body image How Far Is Too Far
Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI): Eating disorders: Information for carers
Black Dog Institute: How to help when you're worried about someone's mental health
Mental Health First Aid: Eating disorders mental health first aid guidelines