Overcoming Family Conflict During Eating Disorder Recovery

Contributor: Katie Thompson, MS, LPC, NCC, CEDS is a primary therapist at Castlewood Treatment Center

What precipitates and perpetuates the eating disorder is different for each individual and recovery requires an understanding of these influences.

The eating disorder itself can be conceptualized as a puzzle with many pieces, each being a combination of factors that contribute to the need for the disorder.

One of the “puzzle pieces” for individuals can be conflict within a family unit. In eating disorder recovery, the role of the family is important to understand and at times to renegotiate. The goal of family involvement in recovery is to facilitate support and understanding.

The Role of Family Therapy

Family therapy can encourage the recovery process and even improve family dynamics for the entire family, not just the client.

In many cases, misunderstandings between family members becomes a constant issue once the eating disorder is set in motion. It is ideal to address this family conflict or it can actually reinforce the need for the eating disorder.

How an Eating Disorder Functions for the Sufferer

There are many possible functions of the eating disorder that can include, but are not limited to:

  • to give the sufferer a sense of control
  • to numb painful or overwhelming emotions or experiences
  • to give the person a sense of accomplishment
  • to give the person a way to rebel privately

Many of the functions of an eating disorder will continue to be necessary without the renegotiation of family dynamics.

The Necessity of a Support System

daisy-75190_640An individual may struggle with the eating disorder in secrecy and may not get the help they need to begin their recovery process without a support system.

By bringing the family into the therapeutic process, isolating aspects of the eating disorder can be addressed and therefore will facilitate the client’s ability to achieve recovery while enhancing the family relationships.

Goals for Family Therapy

Typical goals for family therapy related to the Eating Disorder include:

Family History and Assessment:

clinicians work with the client and family members to gather data about family dynamics, family rules and the psychological history of the family system. Understanding the patterns of family dynamics can help clinicians make sense of why the client has felt compelled to engage in the eating disorder.

Eating disorders are highly heritable and knowing the history of mental illness within a family system can help shed light onto patterns of behavior and familial dynamics.

Facilitate Communication:

hands-269286_640clients and family members work to understand each other and to engage in healthy communication. The goal is to create a space for compassionate understanding and sharing of perspectives in an effort to reduce familial conflict.

Facilitate Understanding:

client explains his or her understanding of why they developed the eating disorder, its functions and what recovery will necessitate. Any issues related to familial struggles are addressed in a nonjudgmental manner with the goal of healing the conflict.

Facilitate Healthy Supports:

clinician, client and family members work together to address the issues that block recovery focused behavior within the family system and relationships. Client shares the goals and outcomes of their individual therapy so that the family can support as appropriate.

Ultimately, for most clients having family involved in their recovery process is beneficial for the client and the family and will help the client achieve their short-term and long-term recovery goals.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

How has the role of family in your recovery supported and encouraged you through your eating disorder recovery?


About the Author:

Katie Thompson, MS, LPC, NCC, has been a primary therapist at Castlewood Treatment Center for the last four years and currently serves as the Lead Eating Disorder Therapist. Katie is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist through the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation.

Katie graduated from Marquette University with a BA in Communications, Education. She later earned a Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Previously, she was a therapist at Rogers Memorial Hospital in the residential program for eating disorders and anxiety disorders.

As the Lead Eating Disorder therapist at Castlewood, Katie facilitates various groups at Castlewood, including all of the Eating Disorder groups, is an active participant in the research team and specializes in eating disorders and anxiety disorders; specifically binge eating disorder.

Katie coordinates the Binge Eating Disorder Program at Castlewood Treatment Center and facilitates the BED groups in both the residential and PHP levels of care. She is skilled in using DBT, CBT, IFS, ERP and group therapy.

Katie is trained in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and has earned her certification in Internal Family Systems Level 2. Katie lectures regionally and nationally on Eating Disorders, Binge Eating Disorder and treatment interventions.

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 reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 5th, 2015. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.