Contributor: Dr. Gregory Jantz, Founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 28 books on behavioral and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and others.
As with any illness, an individual’s struggle with an eating disorder can affect their entire family. An eating disorder not only influences how that individual interacts with their family members, but it can cause extreme strain among the entire family unit.
Because of the interconnectedness of these important relationships, the process of eating disorder recovery often extends to the entire family.
A Critical Component of a Multifaceted Process
Recovery is a multifaceted process often requiring extensive therapy and support for all those involved. One of the most critical components of this recovery journey for families, however, is communication.
Healthy communication is imperative not only for healing past relationship wounds and shortcomings, but it also ensures the relationships stay strong, active, and engaged throughout the recovery process.
For many families in recovery, years of poor communication may have created unhealthy communication patterns. An entirely new approach to family communication may be needed. Below are some building blocks for families to keep in mind as they embark on the road to a healthy recovery.
The majority of families today lack frequent, quality communication. Many children and parents navigate through life with hectic schedules, leaving little time for togetherness and connecting with each other. Even worse, when families do have time together, TVs, texting, and social media often interrupt the quality of their communication.
While many families could benefit from more frequent communication, this need is heightened during recovery from an eating disorder. During this process, peoples’ feelings and internal experiences can change quickly and often.
It is therefore crucial to “check-in” with all members of the family to understand where they are in their “journey” and how they are feeling.
Finding a Regular Time to Just Talk
Finding this regular time to connect requires thoughtful, diligent effort. Turning off the TV, talking in the car, sitting down to eat meals together are all easy ways to incorporate more time to connect into a typical day. Additional time may need to be scheduled through family meetings, retreats, or through regular, shared hobbies.
Communication can be divided into two different areas: instrumental and affective.
- Instrumental communication is the exchange of factual information that enables individuals to fulfill common family functions (e.g., telling a child that he/she will be picked up from school at a specific time and location).
- Affective communication is the way individual family members share their emotions with one another (e.g., sadness, anger, joy).
Some families function extremely well with instrumental communication, yet have great difficulty with affective communication. Healthy families are able to communicate well in both areas.
Holding a Quality Conversation
Once families are able to find the time to communicate, the quality of that communication needs to be addressed. For families in recovery, these conversations should focus on building and esteeming each other’s feelings and relationships.
The focus should not be on weight or food specifically. Family members should avoid making any comments about physical appearance, weight gain or weight loss, even if the comment is meant to be a compliment.
Instead, directing family conversations on a better understanding of how each person is feeling will help establish meaningful connection and encourage empathy between family members.
When discussing the events that happen throughout the day like work, school, sports practice, etc., drawing the conversation back to the feelings experienced at these various events provides an authentic window into a person’s day, and further solidifies meaningful connection between family members.
One of the most important parts of healthy communication is honing active listening skills. Staying present as another person is talking, and showing true care and concern for what they are saying can make all the difference in how much that person is willing to open up.
Nodding, constant eye contact, and occasional words of affirmation can make the speaker feel validated and heard. Asking follow-up questions for further clarification can show engagement and a commitment to truly understand the other person’s perspective.
For family’s recovering from an eating disorder, these active listening skills are a crucial component to making each other feel heard, understood, and appreciated. Active listening and cluing into unspoken body language can also reveal nuggets of information that the speaker may not otherwise feel comfortable sharing.
Recovery is a long, sometimes rocky journey. At times, people will make mistakes, revert to old communication patterns, and unintentionally hurt or disappoint each other.
Despite what the recovery journey may bring, family members should avoid placing blame, shame, guilt, or minimizing the situation at hand by giving simple solutions like, “If you’d just stop, then everything will be fine!”
When struggles arise, deal with the issue authentically and directly, but always seek to find something on which to redirect energy and attention. In some situations of relapse, seeking professional support to work through these periods of struggle may be necessary.
Despite these various twists, keeping an optimistic outlook can provide the rest of the family with strength and hope to continue through the recovery process.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What is your experience with affective communication within your family? What tools do you use to keep yourself engaged in conversation?
- Help Guide. “Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm
Jantz, Gregory. (2010). Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press.
- Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Families First-Keys to Successful Family Functioning: Communication.” http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-092/350-092.html
The opinions and views of our guest bloggers are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 23rd, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com