National Sibling Day: Advice for people who have a sibling with an eating disorder
Eating disorders don’t just impact the individual – they’re felt by the entire family and support network.
In fact, research suggests eating disorders experienced by an individual have significant effects on their siblings, such as a “decrease in quality of life, social isolation, and elevated familial strain. In several studies siblings were found to have elevated levels of psychopathology and ED related symptoms.”
It’s normal to feel distressed, fearful, confused, and anxious when a member of your family has an eating disorder. As a sibling of someone with an eating disorder, it’s okay to feel frustrated that your family life and relationships may have changed significantly. For example, mealtimes may become more hostile, more attention and care may be given to your ill sibling, or conversations may end in arguments or yelling. You may feel like you’ve lost your true sibling or have had to sacrifice a ‘normal’ life.
Eating disorders also commonly involve family treatment, which often includes siblings playing a part in the recovery process. Although this will be different for every family, siblings may help by being models of ‘normal’ eating and providing friendship and support. But as this occurs, it’s crucial that family members also consider the needs of their other children, because the all-encompassing nature of eating disorders means siblings are a “considerably at-risk group” (Maon, Horesh, Gvion, 2020).
In light of National Sibling Day, we’ve put together some tips and advice for people who have a sibling going through an eating disorder.
“An eating disorder is an incomprehensible illness that challenges the boundaries within the family” – Perspective of siblings (Karlstad, et al. 2021)
Learn about eating disorders
Research highlights that one of the most common reasons why relationships between siblings will suffer while one is living with an eating disorder is because there “was difficulty in understanding diagnosed siblings’ feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and at times viewing those as a manipulative and preconceived way of seeking attention” (Karlstad, et al. 2021).
It can be helpful to educate yourself about eating disorders and your sibling’s experience. This can help you separate the disorder from your loved one and realise that what they are going through is not a choice or cry for attention. Remember that no one is to blame for the eating disorder and that this can happen to anyone.
These resources can be a useful starting point:
- What is an eating disorder?
- Myths about eating disorders
- Different experiences of eating disorders from lived experience
- Recovery from an eating disorder
- Caring for someone with an eating disorder
- #AnEDLooksLikeMe Campaign – Eating disorders don’t discriminate and can affect anyone.
- Eating Disorders Victoria free e-Learning platform
Separate the person from the illness
Eating disorders can be insidious and a strong force that can cause an individual to react differently than what you may be used to. The individual may become more secretive, anxious, frustrated or aggressive as they deal with this severe psychological illness.
Think of the eating disorder as being a separate entity, with different thoughts and behaviours, instead of an issue caused by your loved one. The eating disorder is a problem that your sibling has, as opposed to your sibling being the problem. Focus on the illness and remember that there is a healthy self, free from disordered behaviours and thoughts, still within your sibling. It can also be helpful to try to continue normal activities that you shared before the eating disorder.
“You have just got to be really strong and realise that a lot of the things they do, all things that they do are the eating disorder and not them. So, when they are screaming out at you and saying horrible things, you can’t take offence to it. You have to be strong and stand up and know that it is the eating disorder. You really have to get a good idea of what mental illness is about.” – Raising the Alarm: Carers Need Care Too
Put your own oxygen mask on first
Research suggests that siblings of people with eating disorders may downplay their own needs to reduce the burden on their parents. While support from a sibling can have a positive impact on recovery, it’s important you also consider and communicate your own emotions and needs. Don’t feel guilty if you need to step away, recharge and partake in ‘normal’ activities. Before you can help others, you first need to take care of yourself.
“For almost 12 years now, I have observed my sister’s terrifying battle with Anorexia Nervosa. I have seen firsthand how this illness isolates and intimidates it’s victims. How it sucks the life, joy and happiness out of every aspect of a victim’s life until they are unable to recollect a life prior to their illness. Anorexia is not just part of a sufferer’s life, it IS their life and the life of their families. I would like to send a message to all people who may be suffering from an ED or those supporting a loved one with an ED, to say that you are never, ever alone.” – Alexandra
Reach out to your support networks
Some individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed about the illness their sibling is experiencing, but it’s important to speak to people you trust about what is occurring. This can also help break down stigma and misconceptions surrounding EDs, while also ensuring you are supported yourself through what can be a very stressful period in a family’s life.
If you’re not sure where to turn to, Butterfly’s National Helpline is a good place to start – it’s free, confidential and we can provide counselling, advice and support for family members. Call 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email firstname.lastname@example.org – We’re available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEDT).
If possible, attend support groups for carers and family members:
Butterfly Online Support Group for Family and Friends:
Held every First and third Wednesday monthly, 8pm – 9pm (Sydney time)
Eating Disorders Families Australia – ED Support Group for Siblings
EDFA Siblings Support Groups are a safe space to give siblings a voice and acknowledgment for the range of emotions (i.e. sadness, confusion, helplessness, isolation, loneliness, fear, anger, frustration) and daily struggles of living with a sibling with an eating disorder. This support will help them to understand what their role as a sibling is.
References and further information
- Raising the alarm: Carers need care too – Butterfly report and research into the impact of eating disorders on carers.
- Maon, Horesh, Gvion, 2020, Siblings of individuals with eating disorders: a review of the literature, Front Psychiatry, 11:604. Accessed online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7338552/
- Karlstad, et al. 2021, “Putting your own oxygen mask on first”: qualitative study of siblings of adults with anorexia or bulimia. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9:83. Accessed online: https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-021-00440-6