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How Does Bulimia Affect the Family Dynamic?

Watching a loved one struggling with bulimia can be a difficult experience.

Eating disorders are a disorder that often affects the whole family.  While the individual struggling may not be aware that their struggles are noticed or even impacting their family system, the impact of the struggle can ripple throughout the family. Watching a loved one struggle with bulimia is hard and can cause stress and feelings of helplessness on family members. The following are some ways the family may be impacted by a loved one struggling with bulimia. 

Isolation – Your loved one may withdraw from family activities especially those centered around eating. You may feel a loss as they no longer participate in family meals or eat only in secret. Due to excessive time spent at the gym or working out, they may no longer show interest in hobbies or activities you shared in previously together.

Conflict – Family time can potentially become high conflict time due to the increased stress your loved one struggling with bulimia is experiencing.  Comments about food, mealtime, weight, or health could result in arguments if your loved one feels as if he or she is under attack by the family.  Families often try to help and discover that their attempts to support are perceived as controlling or policing. 

Helplessness – You may have the best intentions of supporting and helping your loved one who is struggling with bulimia. However, if they reject your attempts to support, it can leave you feeling helpless and confused.  Working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders can help you and your loved one to begin speaking the same language around the eating disorder. Working with a professional on communication and specific tools that are helpful to your loved one can greatly reduce the nature of the high conflict situation.

Getting Your Loved One the Help They Need

These are some ways you may be able to help your loved one who is suffering from an eating disorder as recommended by the National Eating Disorder Information Center.

  • Be patient with your loved one. Just as a person does not recover from a grave illness overnight, the road to recovery can be a long one. Don’t expect immediate change.
  • Do not make comments about their weight or appearance as these can be misinterpreted negatively.
  • Avoid engaging in food-related conversations, rather encourage participation in non-food related activities.
  • Allow them as much control as possible in their life, especially about food decisions such as restaurant or food choices.
  • Do not accuse or place blame on them for problems in the family. Although it may be true that heightened levels of anxiety and stress are a result of their disorder, bringing this to their attention may only worsen their feelings of low self-worth and self-destructive behavior.

Do encourage them strongly to seek professional help. You may have to set ultimatums and research treatment options for them. Even if they deny the problem or promise they’ll do better, take steps to get them help and reinforce to them that this is motivated by your love and concern for them.

Getting the Help You Need

First and foremost, educate yourself about eating disorders. The more you are informed, the greater the likelihood that you can learn coping techniques to help your family. Next, get help for yourself. Reach out to a friend who has had a similar experience or seek professional help from a support group or therapist.

Eating disorders affect not only those struggling but their families and friends too. You will want to learn as much as you can to be able to be a safe support person for your loved one who is struggling. Education is vital for your family and seeking professional help is critical to ensure lasting recovery for your loved one. Treatment centers that specialize in treating eating disorders can bring healing to your loved one’s life. Multi-disciplinary treatment teams work together to create a recovery plan custom designed for your loved one’s individual needs and circumstances. Members of a multidisciplinary team should include a registered dietitian, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, a registered dietitian, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and participation is recommended in a peer support group or formal treatment program.  We offer residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient treatment options and are staffed with a skilled team of therapists, physicians, psychiatrist, and dietitians. Reach out to one of our treatment consultants to learn about how we can help your family now and ensure a happy and fulfilled life in the future.

Center For Discovery