Witnessing your sibling combat a life-threatening illness can be excruciatingly painful and emotionally conflicting. You knew them before their disorder overtook their life, you witness their moments of victory as well as their moments of darkness.
All at once, you may feel scared, sorrowful, helpless, guilty, angry, confused, happy, hopeful, and overwhelmed. You cannot take this burden from them, but you can help them through the struggle while still taking care of yourself.
The family unit has a unique role to play in eating disorder development, treatment, and recovery. Beginning with development, parental beliefs surrounding the body and food are shown to heavily impact the beliefs children have on the same subjects. This is especially true if parents engage in weight-teasing or stigmatizing .
This is particularly true of maternal beliefs and behaviors, with research showing that if one’s Mother engages in eating disordered thoughts or beliefs, their children are more likely to do the same .
These beliefs and the home-environment it may create continues to be impactful throughout treatment, as the entire family needs to adapt the way they think, speak, and interact regarding food, exercise, the body, and self-talk.
As families recognize that their loved one cannot return home to the same environment, they learn that they must make lasting and long-term changes.
Impact of a Sibling on the Family
It is not only beliefs that impact the entire family. The behaviors a disordered individual shows whether in the thick of their illness or throughout recovery are hugely impactful on a family unit.
For example, mealtimes that were once moments of connection or calm become battlegrounds. The eating disordered individual may be fighting their disorder, their parents, or both, depending on where they are in their illness.
Siblings often become mediators, trying to bridge the communication gap between their sibling and parents. Not only that, siblings of eating disordered individuals may often feel invisible, as the focus of the family remains fixated on the sibling struggling.
Amidst all of this chaos, the sibling must still live within their own day-to-day lives and struggles and often receive less support in doing so than they may have previously.
As a Sibling, Your Feelings are Valid
If these experiences are familiar to you, you likely have conflicting feelings about your sibling, your family, and the relationship you have with each. You may feel alone, invisible, resentful, frustrated, sad, stressed, or any number of uncomfortable or negative emotions.
All of these feelings are valid and make sense. You can feel all of these emotions and still love your sibling and want them to get better.
Supporting a Sibling
Siblings of those struggling with an eating disorder need support as they put their energy and love toward supporting their sibling. This is particularly important considering siblings of individuals with eating disorder diagnoses may also be vulnerable to disorders beliefs and behaviors.
Therapy can be a particularly helpful support in educating the sibling as well as giving them their own safe place to express their thoughts and feelings.
Therapy can also help reduce negative emotions by externalizing the eating disorder and separating it from their sibling. Resentment reduces when the sibling realizes the eating disorder is not one with their sibling and that the eating disorder is the one to be mad at and fight.
Engaging in family therapy and including the sibling in treatment is also a helpful way to strengthen the family unit, allow for the expression of emotions and thoughts, eliminate guilt and blame, and increase communication.
An eating disorder does not need to fracture a family and can bring siblings closer together, however, each sibling needs to receive support to overcome the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.
Resources Potzsch, A., et al. (2018). Two sides of weight bias in adolescent binge-eating disorder: adolescents’ perceptions and maternal attitudes. International Journal of Eating Disorders.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 10, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 10, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC