Families: the untapped superpower in eating disorder recovery

Amid long waiting lists in the health system, parents should be provided with the supports to help their child begin their recovery

Eating disorders have a very significant impact on the individual struggling – mentally, physically and emotionally. Illustration iStock

Supporting a child through an eating disorder and subsequent recovery is one of the toughest things that a parent can experience in life.

Summer of Family: This summer, parents are looking for tips, advice and information on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. You can read all about it at irishtimes.com/health/your-family

We know that families don’t cause eating disorders. We know that the person themselves doesn’t choose it.

And the evidence firmly supports this.

However, although getting your own support as a parent, partner and family member can make all the difference to your family member’s recovery, we have found that families can be slow to try to access this much-needed support.


Recently, RTÉ’s Prime Time documentary on eating disorders threw into sharp relief the struggle families and individuals face in accessing eating disorder treatment in Ireland – including long waiting lists, a geographical lottery in terms of access to services and a lack of specialist services.

Eating disorders have a very significant impact on the individual struggling – mentally, physically and emotionally. They are complex mental illnesses with the highest morbidity rate of all mental illnesses on this side of the world. They can effectively derail someone’s life for the duration of the illness.

However, it is important to note, that with the right support, people can and do recover – and recover fully.

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What is less understood, however, is the impact that a loved one struggling with an eating disorder can have on other family members. For them, it can feel terrifying, frustrating, overwhelming and so, so isolating. It can cause huge levels of anxiety – and anger. It can feel, for parents, that they have landed on another planet, that all the skills that have served them well so far have stopped working. That they have lost the ability to communicate effectively with their loved one.

Consider this quote from one parent we worked with who was dealing with their child’s eating disorder: “I felt judged, that I would be blamed for the illness (I already blamed myself), that I would be told that this illness would be for life. I didn’t know how I would cope with that.”

Or this: “I was afraid to seek support for myself. I felt that I couldn’t make the time as all my attention was focused on my child.”

This impact on the broader family unit is finally being recognised through research. A recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that of the parents surveyed, who were supporting their adolescent children through eating disorder recovery, almost all (96 per cent) experienced worse than normal psychological health, and almost three-quarters (70.5 per cent) experienced worse than normal physical health. Clinical levels of depression and anxiety are higher among caregivers supporting a loved one with an eating disorder than those supporting individuals with other mental illnesses.

But it’s not all bad news.

Eating disorder practitioner Deirdre Reddan: 'Educating and equipping parents can support the work of the professionals in the home environment, making the professional treatment more efficient and effective.'

The research also points to the fact that supportive parents, partners and family members can make a positive difference in helping those struggling with an eating disorder, when they are properly educated, equipped with tools and strategies, and empowered.

And when they feel properly supported themselves.

This applies no matter the age of the individual on the road to recovery, whether they be a child, adolescent or adult.

Parents, partners, family members and friends are frequently the expert on their loved one. No one knows them as well or loves them as much. As a result, they are well placed to work alongside the treatment team, no matter the age of their loved one. (This can be done safely without breaching any confidentiality considerations).

Educating and equipping parents (and other family members) can support the work of the professionals in the home environment, making the professional treatment more efficient and effective. Someone receiving outpatient treatment will meet the professionals (therapist and dietitian) for about one and a half/two hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week, leaving a lot of time at home, while still needing to eat (typically) three meals and three snacks each day, as well as managing the emotional distress that accompanies recovery.

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With the lack of publicly available services and extremely long waiting lists, educating and equipping parents and family members while their loved one is awaiting treatment can start the recovery process – or at least prevent the illness becoming more embedded, as so often happens unfortunately.

Small changes to our language that we can easily learn as family members can make a big difference on the recovery journey. For example, we might need to talk about food differently – or not at all, as discussion of what we’re eating can be triggering for our loved one.

Our work with families (parents, partners and family members) has clearly demonstrated the positive impact of educating and equipping parents and family members in supporting and accelerating a loved one’s recovery. We teach them the evidence-based skills that they need (and that therapists use) to support their loved ones – and themselves during a very difficult time.