An eating disorder’s affect the whole family

What is an eating disorder?

Increased media exposure to the notion that ‘beauty’ means ‘thin’ has heralded an increase in body image issues and eating disorders. The idea that being ‘thin’ will deliver the happiness and contentment that so many young people are missing in their lives drives the attainment of unrealistic ideas of beauty.

In general, eating disorders describe a range of problems associated with eating, food and body image, and can be linked to low self-esteem and an attempt to deal with underlying psychological issues through practicing an unhealthy relationship with food.

More young people (male and female) are coming through the therapy doors to seek the support they need to help them on the journey to recovery. The story below is a common but true scenario that many of you reading this article will be all too familiar with.

Jenny (not her real name) is an all-too-common sufferer of anorexia nervosa. Although smart and social, Jenny is weighed down by what she calls her ‘passenger’ – that is, her illness.

It’s an insidious condition which overwhelms her personality, her natural happiness and her ambition – it has literally ruined the past two years of her life. And that’s really sad.  As is the fact that Jenny’s whole family has been almost destroyed by Jenny’s illness.

Her mother feels guilty as she’s convinced it must be something she has done to create this terrible illness. She wonders constantly was it something she said, was it her own focus on dieting, and is constantly asking herself what she could have done differently.

Her father is confused, he can’t understand why his daughter would be doing this to herself. He feels helpless and afraid. He feels she is slipping away from him and he is powerless to stop this from happening. He feels inadequate as he is the father and should be able to ‘save his little girl’, but nothing he does seems to work.

Her sister is worried and also very resentful. She’s angry with Jenny for all the time her parents have to spend with her and how the whole family has to look after Jenny. Everything revolves around Jenny, from meal times, to family discussions, to holidays, to leisure choices.  Everybody’s focus is on Jenny, and the sister feels like she is not important and that she is being abandoned by her parents.  She feels alone and without a voice, and deep down she suspects that Jenny just wants attention.

This terrible illness has the whole family in despair. Jenny needs individual work to help guide her through this insidious disease and so too do the whole family. Family counselling will re-open many channels of communication within this family that have been long lost due to Jenny’s dark passenger – the new family member known by all as ‘Ed’ (eating disorder).

If this sounds like somebody in your family and you are confused as to what you can do to help then read on:

What can be done to help the sufferer of an eating disorder?

Many people with eating disorders feel isolated.  They often feel cut off from sources of support as the disease encourages their behaviours to hide their illness.

So it is very important for the sufferer to find someone to support them. This may be a friend, family member or professional. The more support people in their lives the better.  Support groups for individuals and their families can be a wonderful place to connect to others who are also suffering.

Sufferers need to feel they can trust their support person, and they need to feel validated and understood to help repair their self-esteem. The process is a long physical and psychological journey.

A large part of this process is for the sufferer to learn to ‘be kind to’ themselves. Those who suffer eating disorders are typically very self-critical, they set unrealistic goals for themselves, and are usually perfectionistic high achievers.  They are their own hardest critic.

Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in the sufferer’s life as they move beyond the effects of the eating disorder.

For the sufferer, it is a deeply personal and unique process of changing attitudes, values, feelings, goals, behaviours and skills.  But the sufferer will eventually learn how to meaningfully engage again with family and friends, whilst learning to accept and love themselves.

How to recognise an eating disorder in your family

The most serious eating disorder is anorexia nervosa, which is characterised by dangerously low body weight and can be life threatening. Bulimia nervosa is usually not so frequently life-threatening, but can have serious medical complications. This condition is characterised by binge eating and subsequent behaviours to compensate for the binge. Others suffer from other equally unhealthy patterns of eating, known as Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).

I’ve outlined some of the common warning signs of eating disorders, though please note that not all of these symptoms are necessarily indicative of an eating disorder and that some sufferers may not display all of these signs.

Physical warning signs:

  1. Rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes

  2. Loss or disturbance of menstr