Eating disorders impact families in ways that the individual with the disorder doesn’t even begin to think about. As a parent, it would be devastating to me to have a child who is so unhappy with her looks that she goes to the extreme and puts her life on the line. How could I have created this perfect living being and nurtured her the best I knew how just to have her be so desperate to fit in, be liked and admired, and be so disgusted with her appearance? More so, if the individual has a severe disorder, outsiders think there has to be something wrong with the parents to let their child become “this” and siblings get harassed and taunted because of the way their sister/brother looks. The perceived inability to help the child/sibling can leave the family members feeling worthless and out of control.
Treatment strategies for the loved ones of the individual with an eating disorder really revolve around therapy. Family therapy can be of great use because of the feeling of being out of control which lies in both the client and their family. The client is using food intake as a way to control something in their life, many times because there is an aspect which they have no control over, especially socially (Carlson, 2010). The family has no control over the food intake of the client. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Family therapy can help the client understand that there is a different (and better) way of dealing with the uncomfortable and sometimes scary feelings which are present and that the family is there to support the client, no matter what it takes. For the family, they get a better understanding of why the client is feeling this way and how it may not be their fault. The family can also come to terms with the fact that there really is something wrong and stop side-stepping it like it’s the giant elephant in the room.
Because eating disorders can be created by family dynamics, there is always room for improvement in the relationships, interactions, and communication. Education on eating disorders, analyzing the family member’s pasts to determine if there is a pattern, and unconditional support for the entire family from the therapist can aid in the therapeutic setting. In the helping sense, the client can come to realize the amount of support and love they have to fall back on when they are feeling like nothing good is out there. They might find out through the course of therapy that one of the parents shared the same disorder and may build a stronger bond between the two. In the hinder aspect, the client may feel like the family is teaming up against them and alienating them for their own amusement. The client may feel picked on and singled out as if the entire family was saying “Look at Jenny – what’s wrong with her? Why can’t she just be normal like us?” If family therapy is hindering the process, then individual therapy would be in the best interest of the client until the individual is able to overcome the fear and anxiety of having the family “let in” on what can be considered some of the most personal aspects of their life.
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Carlson, N. (2010). Physiology of behavior (10thed.) Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Hersen, M., Turner, S., Beidel, D. (2007). Adult psychopathology and diagnosis (5thed.) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.