Families do not cause eating disorders.
It's true that older models of eating disorders treatment viewed families and dysfunctional family relationships as a contributing cause of these illnesses; however, the treatment community has moved away from the blaming of families toward an understanding that families aren't a cause, but instead are critical to eating disorders recovery. In a recent address to families of men, women and children suffering from eating disorders, Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, M.D., FAAP, FSAHM, FAED, CEDS, a noted eating disorders treatment thought leader and colleague of mine at Eating Recovery Center, communicated this point by saying, "We have drifted away from shaming and blaming families and have moved toward an understanding that families are an integral part of eating disorders treatment, not only in helping an individual respond well to treatment, but also to go on to lasting recovery."
Understand that whole families are affected by eating disorders, and everyone deserves support. Regardless of an individual's stage in the recovery process, there are some meaningful strategies that families can employ to help support a loved one as he or she confronts and combats his or her eating disorder.
Understand the eating disorder isn't your fault. This is so important -- even at the risk of sounding redundant, I'll say it again: Families do not cause eating disorders. You aren't responsible for the development of this complex, devastating disorder in your loved one, so don't blame yourself. With this realization, commit to being part of the solution and do everything in your power to support the recovery process.
Listen. Families often find eating disorders difficult to understand and even more difficult to accept. While it may sound overly simplistic, a good way to learn about the experience of your loved one is to listen to what he or she is saying. Don't feel like you need to have all the answers or give advice. Instead, listen actively and do your best to create an environment in which your loved one can be honest with you and reach out for support.
Talk sometimes, too. While listening is important, don't shy away from expressing yourself and your concerns about your loved one's health. While these conversations can be uncomfortable at times and the reaction from your loved one can vary from receptive to outraged, know that secrets and things left unsaid rarely support a meaningful eating disorder recovery.
Educate yourself. Resources abound to help you learn about eating disorders, viable treatment options for your loved one and the ways in which families can support their loved ones throughout the eating disorders recovery process. The Internet can be a good place to start your research about the illness and treatment options, and can also help you to connect with other families that have experienced similar situations with eating disorders and recovery for support. For example, the National Eating Disorders Association has a robust collection of online resources for family and friends.
Participate in the eating disorders treatment process. To the extent that it's possible and appropriate, be willing to participate in your loved one's eating disorders treatment plan. Educational programming and family therapy for anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder seek to prepare parents and siblings to effectively support a loved one's recovery following discharge from treatment. Weekly family therapy sessions will likely be part of your loved one's programming, and can be conducted in person or by phone when proximity of the treatment center prohibits travel. Specific goals of the family contact vary, and depend largely on each patient's unique background and struggles. Additionally, some eating disorders treatment centers offer family programming to educate, support and care for families of eating disordered patients at every stage of the recovery process.
There is nothing more difficult than watching a loved one struggle with illness, particularly an illness that takes control of the mind and body and causes extreme disturbances in an individual's behaviors and feelings. Know that recovering from an eating disorder truly does "take a village" and that your support and participation in the treatment process can make a genuine difference in your loved one's life and recovery.
Have more questions about the role of family in the eating disorders recovery process? Confidentially chat live with an eating disorders specialist at www.EatingRecoveryCenter.com.
For more by Kenneth L. Weiner, M.D., FAED, CEDS, click here.
For more on eating disorders, click here.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.