The Eating Disordered Family

Written by Matthew C. Bartlett, M.Ed., LMFT  Executive Director, New Haven Residential Treatment Center, Saratoga Springs Campus

So often we hear about how important it is to heal the individual.  We can quote facts like roughly one percent of females will develop anorexia at some point in their life.  Although it most commonly occurs in adolescent and young adult females, it can and does affect males at times.  We can talk about genetic factors and family history.  We can have proof that eating disorders often run in families.  In fact, a close relative of someone with an eating disorder is 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than someone without any family history of an eating disorder.  Plus there are environmental influences, stress events, the words of others, etc.  All of these facts are relevant and true.  And totally focused on the individual that suffers from the eating disorder.

What you don’t hear often is how eating disorders affect the family as a whole.  How those stress events, those environmental influences, those statistics impact the whole family system.  Too often we focus on healing the one and forget that she is a part of something larger.  And if you ignore the bigger picture, that of the whole family system, the individual will be fighting her way back without the strong system that she’ll need to truly heal.

It is not uncommon for the eating disorder to become the center of the family system.  As the person’s fears around her own eating, gaining weight and overall negative view of self increase, the family’s fears are increased as well.  The pain onhealthy glucophage that families and friends are faced with often come as a result of a broken relationship due to the impact that the eating disorder has had on the family system. At New Haven, we believe that when families can explore underlying issues, address individual needs and concerns, in a space that provides both emotional and physical safety, then they can find peace and lasting change.

Although eating disorders are difficult to treat, research shows that with effective family focused treatment, roughly one-half recover completely, while many others will experience intermittent periods of recovery and relapse.  At New Haven we believe that the path to lasting healing and change comes through the experiences and security of loving, healthy relationships.  Family based treatment for eating disorders is often the most effective path for young people struggling in this way.

From our therapists, cooks, teachers, to our clinically sophisticated residential staff, we all strive to ensure our young women and their families experience safe, secure and loving relationships. Through our interactions we model and teach values such as healthy boundaries, individual worth, respect, love, and empathy. The understanding of a personal locus of control empowers our students and their families to regain control and find purpose in relationships and life.  This provides space for the creation of strong, healthy relationships with friends and family instead of it being filled with all the fears and challenges associated with anorexia.

New Haven’s family systems approach has proven results, with 87% of program graduates never readmitting to long-term residential treatment.  And that’s what it’s all about.  Ensuring that the entire family is healed.