No problem exists in a vacuum, a fact that applies to eating disorders as well as any other type of mental health condition. Because as human beings we live within a family structure, it comes as no surprise that, when one member of the family develops disordered eating habits, dysfunction in the family is a likely result.
Why is that? How is it that one family member’s disordered eating causes such disruption in the family dynamic? Because just as it causes deep anguish to witness a loved one suffer from any physical illness, it is just as upsetting to watch a family member battle a serious eating disorder. It is painful for parents and siblings to watch their loved one in the throes of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
Family members often feel helpless while they watch their loved one waste away, with no sense of power to stop the process. The fear of losing them can unleash powerful emotions, such as frustration, anxiety, and anger. Without a basic understanding of how and why an eating disorder has made its way into the family unit, confusion, blame, guilt, and shame begin to color familial relationships, causing disharmony.
How Family Therapy Can Help
Once it is understood that a complex mix of factors cause an eating disorder, the family learns it is not in their best interest to lay blame on each other for having “caused” the illness. A therapist in a family group environment helps much more by focusing on educating the family members about how an eating disorder evolves and how it affects the brain of their loved one, rather than by assigning blame. Effective family therapy is centered on improving communication skills between family members, and equipping them with problem-solving skills to use throughout recovery.
Family group therapy can also help families cope with the stress of the eating disorder. Often, the eating disorder has changed their loved one’s personality, making them irritable and angry as they grapple with the powerful illness, and this causes strain and tension in the home. Group therapy gives family members an opportunity to openly communicate how stressful it is to walk on eggshells in the presence of the sufferer. In the case of anorexia, the starvation has a significant impact on their cognitive processes, so they can’t think or reason correctly. Once weight is restored, the moodiness and irritability usually subside, allowing for a more peaceful home environment and healthier interactions between family members.
Teaching the family about what they can expect in the recovery process is a valuable component of family therapy. Knowledge is a powerful tool in establishing an atmosphere that is conducive to loving support and understanding. Gaining specific skills for family members to employ during their loved one’s recovery phase is important, as it empowers the family. Meaningful participation with their loved one on the path of recovery gives families a sense of helpfulness versus the helplessness they felt before.
Casa Serena’s Multi-Family Group
At Casa Serena, our Family Education and Support Group involves a group of multiple families who gather together with our clients, their loved ones. In this large group setting, family members can learn from other families and gain new perspectives. The depth of knowledge and experience provided by our expert clinical therapists gives family members a new frame of reference and helpful tools. Compassion is emphasized, as family members are encouraged to support their loved one while issues around food, weight, or size are resolved in recovery. Contact Casa Serena today at (925) 682-8252.