IBS For Family and Friends
Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Does someone in your life suffer from IBS? Unlike many other health problems, this chronic digestive disorder can really wreak havoc on the lives it touches – sufferers, friends and family alike. As a loved one, it can be hard to know how to help without making things worse, especially while you are also dealing with the negative impact that IBS has on your own quality of life. Here are some ideas for addressing the needs of the IBS sufferer in your life as well as your own.

What They Need

IBS presents some unique challenges. Symptoms can be unpredictable, embarrassing and devastating. It is hard to commit to plans, access to a bathroom becomes essential, and food can become something to be feared. The fact that you care can go a long way toward helping the IBS sufferer to cope. You can also be of help by doing the following:
Educate yourself as to the nature of IBS, including possible causes, potential triggers, and its waxing and waning course.
Provide your loved one with support and understanding. Never blame them for their symptoms or minimize their distress.
Allow them the freedom to manage their IBS as they see fit. Avoid unwanted advice as to how they should be taking care of themselves.
Be flexible in terms of planning. Remain aware that plans may be cancelled at the last minute. Have back-up plans for quiet home activities should acute symptoms prevent them from leaving the house.
Respect their need for bathroom access when planning outside activities and excursions.
Be willing to accompany them to doctors to ensure their symptoms and concerns are not being minimized or dismissed.

What They Don’t Need
As much as you care about their well-being, the bottom line is that unless you walk in their shoes, you cannot know what it is really like to suffer from IBS. Here are some ways to avoid common missteps that friends and family members have been known to make:

Don’t give unwanted diet advice. Let the IBS sufferer make their own decisions about what they can and cannot eat.
Don’t tell them to “just relax”. It is hard to relax when you are experiencing or worried about acute symptoms.
Do not minimize symptoms. The worst thing you can say to an IBS sufferer is “It’s not cancer”. IBS may not be life-threatening, but it certainly is quality-of-life threatening.
Don’t forget about the risk of symptoms. IBS is an unpredictable disorder. It is also an invisible problem. Just because they “look fine” doesn’t mean that IBS symptoms are not still a real possibility.

What You Need

IBS is not all about them.  Here are some things to keep in mind in terms of taking care of your own self:

Be kind to yourself. Although it is hard to watch someone you care about suffer, it is okay to acknowledge that IBS has a negative impact on your own life.
If you are the parent of an IBS sufferer, do not blame yourself.  Your child’s IBS did not come about due to some failing on your part.

Develop your own interests and activities to meet your own needs when your loved one is too ill to do something with you.

With permission from your loved one, don’t be afraid to speak up to health professionals. Asking questions and seeking solutions with their doctors can help to overcome any feelings of powerlessness you may be experiencing.

Practice stress management techniques, such as relaxation exercises, meditation or yoga, so that you can reduce your reactivity to cancelled plans.


Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

https://www.verywell.com/ibs-4014702  (VeryWell.com IBS Guide from 2006 through February 2017 and author or co-author of four books on IBS.)

Last update to this page December 2022 and link verified December 2023