How Eating Disorders Affect Family

Eating disorders can have a devastating effect on the individual that experiences them, but they also influence others. In this article, we discuss how eating disorders affect family, friends and loved ones.

Watching a person that you love suffer is always going to be painful, but with an eating disorder the stress is often worsened because to anyone who has not experienced an eating disorder it seems as if it should be so simple and easy to get better. It is not, eating disorders affect the sufferer’s brain and can potentially turn the act of eating food into something terrifying.

Parents and families often need to do some work to educate themselves as to why the sufferer cannot simply just eat and get better. There are resources that can help families understand the physical and mental effects that an eating disorder has. Doing some research and learning about eating disorders will put the entire family unit in a better place to recover.

As a parent, do not underestimate how important your role in your child’s recovery will be, the more information that you have the better you will be prepared to deal with the task helping him or her recover.

Malnutrition And Re-Feeding

Studies have shown that malnutrition has many destructive effects on the brain and body. This is true for any person, but proper nutrition is even more crucial for developing children. If you are a parent of a child that you suspect has an eating disorder it is imperative that you do not wait for them to ask for help. That day will likely never come.

That is not to say that you should not try and talk to them about it first, you should, but do not be surprised if they are resistant to the idea of treatment or even talking about the fact that there may be something wrong. The effect that anorexia has on the brain is very distortionary and many sufferers do not believe that they have a problem. When a person is underweight for a prolonged period of time the consequences can be dire. It is very likely that you are going to have to act against the will of your child for the sake of their own long-term health. In the same way that you would insist that your child receive medical treatment for any other physical or mental disorder, you must insist that they receive treatment for an eating disorder. And for many, in anorexia or any other disorder where malnutrition is apparent, food is medicine.

It is important that you understand that parents do not cause eating disorders. Whilst it is true that studies show that children who have suffered domestic abuse or trauma have a higher prevalence of eating disorders, this is most likely to be due to stress/ abuse/ trauma being environmental triggers and not stand alone causes. Not all abused children go on to develop eating disorders and likewise not all people with eating disorders have experienced some kind of abuse.

Eating disorders are not caused by over controlling parents either. This is a very old fashioned view and should be dismissed immediately. It was once thought that parents were to blame for autism too! This is not true, and neither is it true that parents are to blame for eating disorders.

It is important that you rid yourself of any feelings of guilt or shame early on as you need to use this energy elsewhere. Instead, focus on looking forward into treatment rather than blaming yourself. Nobody is to blame for an eating disorder.

Step One

Choose a time when there is no food present to sit your child down and talk to them about food, eating and your concerns. It is important that you do not bring this up for the first time at a mealtime because when food is present your child will probably already be feeling stressed and the discussion will likely turn into an argument. Eating disorders can get angry when they are challenged, be prepared to remain calm, compassionate and loving in this initial discussion. Do not expect this initial conversation to be easy, but to listen to your child and see if you can use your intuition to decipher what is going on.

Step Two

Seek treatment. This step happens even if your child is adamant that they do not have a problem. Your opinion as a parent is valuable, you know your child better than anyone else and if you think that they have an eating disorder you must act on your intuition even if your child denies it. This is the most loving thing that you can do for a child with an eating disorder as it could save them years of suffering. Find a local reliable professional with experience in Family Based Therapy. Eating disorders affect your entire family one way or another, and the recovery process needs to recognize this and work with you as a unit.

Step Three

Work out your support systems:

For your child: You may need to send your child into an inpatient program or you may need to resource a local support team consisting of a therapist, nutritionist, dietitian and other specialized clinicians as a support system for your child’s treatment. You may need to do both.

For your family: Other family members are affected in multiple ways. It can be terrifying for siblings to watch their brother or sister live through an eating disorder. It can also be a drain of resources both financial and emotional, make sure that you ask for help from outer family members and friends so that you do not get burnt out.

For You: As a parent, treating a child with an eating disorder is incredibly hard work. Make sure you get your own support system in place. A good friend, or even better a peer who has had experience in treating a child with an eating disorder that you can go to to let off steam. The F.E.A.S.T forum is a wealth of support for parents who are re-feeding their children.

Weight Restoration Is Crucial

When a body is underweight it is under stress. When a growing body is underweight there is the potential for long-term damage to be done. Your primary aim will be to get your child back up to an operational body weight. Until that has happened your child is at risk, after weight has been restored you will have to work with your team of professionals to keep it restored.

Understanding The Difference Between The Eating Disorder And Your Child.

Eating disorders can seem to change a sufferers personality a lot. Most sufferers feel a barrage of mixed and confusing emotions all at one time. There is a lot of frustration and fear, this all escalates into a massive amount of stress. Stress coupled with malnutrition often looks like irritability and anger. The sufferers body, hormones and brain systems are not in sync and this confusion leads to internal disruption and unhappiness. Temper tantrums, depression and moodiness are all symptoms of the effects of an eating disorder. Remember that this is usually caused by the eating disorder and that once your childs body weight is restored, it is more likely that they will return to the personality that they were previously.

In this video, Jordan Caldwell interviews his family on how his anorexia affected them:

Return To Home Page

Additional Reading:

A Mom’s Perspective: Having a Child with an Eating Disorder
Reducing Mealtime Stress
Psychological Treatment for Eating Disorders: What Works
Preventing Caregiver Burnout


Malnutrition: causes and consequences John Saunders

The effect of chronic childhood malnutrition on pubertal growth and development

F.E.A.S.T local directory of support

Give Food a Chance by Julie O’Toole

The slippery slope: prediction of successful weight maintenance in anorexia nervosa

Maudsley methods of family based therapy

Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014