What if More than One Child in the Family is Struggling with an Eating Disorder?

Family and eating disorder treatment

Contributor: Courtney Howard, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

When a child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, parents typically feel a wide range of emotions. They might feel anxious, powerless, and often guilty for not having recognized the warning signs. These feelings can be exacerbated when more than one child in a family develops an eating disorder.

Why It is Not Your Fault

Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., explains that her first thoughts upon finding out her adolescent daughter had anorexia nervosa were those of self-blame. She states, “At first I did not notice and she was already very thin by the time I realized that anorexia could indeed happen in a family like ours… Of course I felt guilty for being so unobservant… but as soon as we realized the seriousness of her illness, her father and I tried to help all we could.”

These feelings are unfortunately common as parents realize they have missed telltale signs of an eating disorder. Most parents are not on the lookout for signs of restricting, bingeing, and/or purging. Even if they are, eating disorders are so secretive and isolative in nature that it is common for loved ones to remain in the dark.

Eating disorders are complex mental health disorders that can develop as a result of biological, psychological, and social factors. Though situations and people can be triggering in nature, no one has the power to cause the development of an eating disorder in someone else. This also applies to two siblings both grabbling with eating disorders; it is neither child’s fault that the other has a severe mental health condition.

Noticing Signs the second (or third) time around

Five joyful friendsIf one child has already been diagnosed with an eating disorder, parents might be more sensitive to warning signs that indicate an eating disorder is present in his or her sibling. Alternatively, they might be too consumed in the first child’s recovery process to recognize eating disorder patterns of behavior in their other children. The latter is common and understandable, considering the emotional toll that the recovery process can have on loved ones.

To avoid missing these signs in other children once one has been diagnosed, parents can educate themselves on eating disorders and be cognizant of red flags.

Families with two or more children with eating disorders are encouraged to look at each child’s disorder as the separate diagnosis that it is. Lumping siblings’ eating disorders together can foster more feelings of worthlessness and misunderstanding in these children. In this sense, it can also be dangerous to assume that one child’s eating disorder is the same as that of the other child. No two eating disorders are exactly the same and all require individualized treatment.

How to Rebuild Your Family

mother and daughter resting on a bench in the parkEating disorders thrive on secrecy, often resulting in dishonesty and perceived manipulation. Once it is found that a child or children in the same family have an eating disorder, it can be difficult to rebuild trust. It is essential for loved ones to understand that it is the eating disorder that is being manipulative, not the individual. “One of the major difficulties that stand in the way of building authentic connections in families where eating disorders arise is manipulation,” confirms eating disorder professional Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW.

Despite these trust issues that can develop when someone’s eating disorder is active or following a diagnosis, there are ways the family can heal by working together. Depending on existing family dynamics, this might be a slow process. However, as Dr. Scheel explains, “Accepting that every family member has a role in recovery can offset the tendency to blame and therefore maintain an empathic reaction, even when manipulation is occurring.”

For this reason, family therapy is extremely beneficial to individuals with eating disorders and their loved ones. There are also many support groups available to parents with children in recovery or active in their disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) both have support systems in place for family members and loved ones touched by eating disorders.

The development of eating disorders in more than one child in a family is no reflection on the parents. Instead of feeling shame or guilt, parents can actively participate in the recovery process and assess family dynamics to improve their children’s chances at full and happy lives.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one experienced multiple eating disorders within the family? What adjustments were made to the family to support your loved ones’ recovery?

Courtney Howard photoAbout the Author: Courtney Howard is a Certified Life Coach specializing in eating disorders through Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching. As a content writer at The Sovereign Health Group while writing freelance through Eating Disorder Hope, Courtney is a passionate advocate for recovery and works to fight the stigma surrounding all mental health disorders. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate.

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.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors 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 January 3, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com