Eating Disorders Affect Everyone in Your Family

One of the best things about being part of a family is having other people to stand by you and support you so that you don’t feel like you are facing the trials and tribulations of the world on your own.  When there is trouble, the family circles the wagons, pools the resources, devises a plan, and focuses all their energy, attention, and resources on getting through whatever situation they are facing.  For the short term, they are stronger individually than as a group because they can band together.  But this dynamic can create serious problems if a family gets stuck there for the long term, especially if the challenge they are facing means all the attention and all the energy are focused on a single family member.  This is how an eating disorder in one child can impact the lives, behavior, and future of any other children in the family.

In the Beginning

As with any family crisis, most family members have no problem pitching in, taking a back seat, and fending for themselves in the days and weeks immediately following the start of the crisis.  For families that are dealing with eating disorders, this event may be diagnosis, hospitalization, or any point in time when the focus of the family shifts to the child with the disorder.  Siblings understand that their brother or sister is ill and needs help and generally step up to help out however they can.  In most cases, siblings of someone who is struggling with an eating disorder will do all this willingly and without complaint, in the beginning.

When Weeks Become Months and Months Become Years

The real danger to siblings of teens with eating disorders is that unlike many other family crises, there isn’t usually a quick resolution.  According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), it can take years to recover from an eating disorder.   To siblings, this means that the sacrifices they so willingly made in the beginning may be required for a significant chunk of their childhood or teenage years.

Let’s pretend there is a family with 3 children, Sarah who is 16, John who is 10, and Max who is 7.  Sarah is diagnosed with anorexia and the family rallies around her to provide love and support during her treatment and recovery.  Over the coming months, as Sarah struggles to overcome her disease, John and Max will be struggling too.  They accept getting less attention from their parents because they know Sarah needs them more right now.  They give up activities, sports, and clubs to help ease financial strains and because there is no one around to take them.  They learn to take care of things around the house like dishes and laundry and meals so that they have what they need even when no one is around to provide those things for them.   They may begin to act out or rebel as a way to get their parent’s attention.  They may become resentful of their sister and lose the ability to be sympathetic toward her.  They may pull so far away from the family unit in an effort to protect themselves, that when Sarah is better and the family shifts its focus back to the center, they may find it irreparably broken.

How to Help

The most important thing to understand is that eating disorders don’t just impact the person with the diagnosis and in most families, everyone is going to need assistance, attention, and support to get through the process.  Approach the problem as a family and rally the troops but realize that the battle you are fighting is more like a siege than a head to head fight and plan accordingly.

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