My son’s girlfriend has an eating disorder. What can I do to help him?

Annalisa Barbieri

Our teenage son’s girlfriend, who is also a teenager, has an eating disorder. She will shortly start a programme of intensive daily treatment, over several weeks. She also deals with added stress and suffered a significant bereavement a year ago. She has had therapy support over several years and, according to my son, does not confide in her therapist, preferring to talk to him, which makes him feel needed, from what I understand. She has a big family and a church support system.

Growing up with a younger brother who has special needs, both of our older children were raised to have more compassion for peers who experience disability and other struggles.

We allowed our son to be the shoulder to cry on (thinking how would we feel if this girl was our daughter) when her family member died, but have talked to him about boundaries, and how we have noticed mood changes in him. He brushes it off, saying he is tired and stressed by a heavy workload at school. We suspect her stress affects him more than he admits; she is emotionally very needy and he does not want to set boundaries.

I am worried about the unhealthy relationship pattern between them, and would appreciate resources and advice on how to approach my parental duty lovingly, yet efficiently; soon he can legally move out and pursue this relationship, so our concern is not to alienate him. I also lost a family member to an eating disorder.

You sound extremely sensitive and kind, and it seems as if you have raised your son to be the same. It is really important to have boundaries, but that’s quite a hard lesson to learn, let alone implement, at any age – doubly so when you are in love, and triply so when you are an adolescent. Their relationships tend to be super-intensive, and shut everything else out. When teenagers become fixated on something it’s very hard to get in between them and their focus, so you are right to tread carefully; the last thing you want is to make him defensive as that will just shut down communication.

His claim about a heavy workload is very probably accurate and part of the picture, and moods are also part of everyday life. His girlfriend needing him may also be fulfilling a need in him (it’s a role he’s probably used to playing with his brother). But, obviously, a healthy relationship needs balance and they both need to be looked after and protected. He can’t sacrifice himself for his girlfriend, however ill she may get.

To an extent, you can model this behaviour by how you deal with those around you: yes it’s important to be kind and supportive, but not so much so that you become overwhelmed. I often use a lifeboat analogy: if you take on too many others, you risk drowning everyone.

The good news is that his girlfriend is having what sounds like intensive professional help, has a support network, and people do recover from eating disorders. I would try to gently (when appropriate) remind him of this, and that he can only do so much. Looking after himself is not selfish, but necessary. Try to listen and gently reassure, not lecture; we can tend to the latter when we are fearful.

The specialists in this field that I spoke to said that the more you understand about his girlfriend’s illness the more informed you will be. Then you will be better equipped to support your son, instead of looking to him to reassure you (which he may feel pressure to do).

You also need support – but it must come from “outside”, not from your son. Being able to offload to someone means any subsequent conversations between your son and you are less likely to become heated. It would also be useful for you to talk through your own family experiences of eating disorders (your family member’s death) so you don’t project your fears on to your son’s situation.

Beat is an excellent resource (beateatingdisorders.org.uk) for supporting those affected by eating disorders. They provide a helpline (0808 801 0677/0711 for adults/under 18s) or email (adults: help@beateatingdisorders.org.uk; under 18s: fyp@beateatingdisorders.org.uk), online support groups, one-to-one webchats and more.

I recommend you call the helpline for yourself to start with, and then let your son know about the website and the services available, and leave him to contact them if he wishes.

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