Family Relationships with an Eating Disorder

Written by Stacey Koller from New Haven RTC

When an adolescent is struggling with an eating disorder, the effects are not limited to her alone. Eating disorders can have great power in a family system, and every family member will have a unique relationship with the eating disorder.

When a daughter is struggling with an eating disorder, parents experience extreme anxiety. They are fearful for their daughter’s physical health and her emotional well-being. Like all anxiety, this often leads to an attempt to control, so it is common for parents to become obsessive over their daughters eating or exercising habits, and obsessing over her weight. This attempt to control is done in earnest concern but typically leads to power struggles that escalate the behaviors.

At New Haven, we specialize in the family system work that is essential in treating adolescent eating disorders. We understand the power struggles that develop within the bonds of a family when a daughter is struggling with an eating disorder. Because the eating disorder touches each member of the family we make sure to work with each family member as a part of treatment.

Narrative Therapy is utilized with families to help them understand that the problem is the problem-not the person. This gives the family space to address the eating disorder itself, or more importantly the issues that are driving the eating disorder. Moving from an attempt to control into a space where resolution can be found is essential for recovery. Narrative Therapy helps the family unite, then align, against the narrative that is driving the eating disorder.

Of course, this sounds easier on paper than it is in real life. As discussed in our last blog post, New Haven utilizes our Adaptive Family Systems Model to address the roles and narratives that exist in the family. This works takes time, and when it comes to an eating disorder, fear can make it difficult for families to make these shifts. While moms tend to better understand the ideas and narratives that drive the daughter to her eating disorder behavior, dads sometimes have a more difficult time shifting from a place of control and moving to the deeper work at the core. Structural Therapy is used to realign the roles that have developed around the eating disorder, but it is important to recognize that each parent and sibling’s unique relationship with the eating disorder will need to be addressed.

The programming that exists at New Haven already creates an environment where focus on the eating disorder can be minimized so families can also focus on building positive family relationships. As a family becomes closer and connected, the eating disorder loses power in the system. Healing is found over time through dedicated family work.