Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP

Eating disorders are complicated conditions that quickly take over an individual’s life. When obsessive anxiety about food and body appearance begin, daily thoughts and activities often focus on food issues to the point that normal life becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Eating disorders often require dedicated treatment because eating is a part of life — a necessary component to survival and wellness. When this primary function becomes difficult or overwhelming, physical health, relationships and goals are quickly impacted. Residential treatment that specializes in nutritional wellness and recovery is a great resource for turning things around.

Eating disorder treatment often includes extensive counseling services. It’s common to be asked many questions, especially in the beginning of the recovery process. Your therapist may ask about your family or even wish to initiate family therapy with you and your loved ones. There are many reasons for this, and there are many ways that family members or close friends can help build a strong support system for anyone who struggles with food or weight issues.

The Role of Family in Eating Disorders

3 generations on the beachThere is no one cause of an eating disorder. Every person is unique and each approach to body image, health and caloric intake is different. Most professionals agree that eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binging or compulsive overeating are caused by multiple factors. Personality, physical biology, cultural expectations, and yes, even family can contribute to the formation of an eating disorder.1

Historically, parents were pinpointed as a source of eating disorder troubles. This idea of blaming the family dates back to the late 1800s and is now outdated.2 Today, clinicians understand that eating disorders are complex and have many causes. Families are no longer blamed for disordered eating. Instead, they are invited to heal together, allowing the opportunity  for a greater understanding that the family can actually be a source of support if everyone becomes well-informed and works together.3,4

Family members and loved ones cannot blame themselves if someone they care about struggles with an eating disorder. However, every family can benefit from a close examination of family norms—the ideas carried about body image, eating and communication throughout generations. It is easy to identify one “problem person” in a family as the only one who needs help, but greater healing begins when the entire family system works together.

How Families Can Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Individual therapy plays an important role in helping each person overcome an eating disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy are all well-established methods of treatment. However, family therapy is a very important path of healing for most people.

The goal of family therapy is not to blame the family, but to heal the entire family system. There may be some exploration and education about family systems, eating disorders and coping skills. Many families learn better communication skills and walk away with a sense of greater understanding and achievement.

Studies do show that most people who experience eating disorders believe that their families have some level of dysfunction. The good news is that individuals who feel positive about their family’s ability to function—those who attend family counseling — have more positive outcomes and experience greater long-term healing than their peers.5

It seems that family therapy, or even just gaining a greater understanding of family dynamics truly pays off in the end. So while family dysfunction does not cause an eating disorder, mending from family conflict and dysfunction can do a lot to repair relationships and help everyone heal when a family member struggles with unhealthy body image or diet.

Family members can help their loved one by trying some of the following approaches:

  • Engage in family therapy together.
  • Understand more about healthy boundaries and relationships.
  • Learn about eating disorders and the treatment of eating disorders.
  • Exhibit good self-care, including the use of individual therapy and peer support.
  • Discuss coping styles and ways to cope with stress, conflict and impulses.
  • Examine family and personal ideas about self-criticism, body image and health.
  • Explore family history of healthy eating, disordered eating and anxiety disorders.
  • Practice unconditional love and acceptance of yourself and your loved ones.

Center for Change offers a comprehensive eating disorder treatment program that is backed by evidence and experience. Our holistic approach offers treatment for a wide range of eating disorders and related conditions. Find out how our experienced nutritional, medical and psychological experts can help your family today by calling 1-888-224-8250.

1 Lavee, Y., Latzer, Y., & Gal, S. (2009). Marital and parent-child relationships in families with daughters who have eating disorders. Journal of Family Issues. 30, 1202-1220.

2 Eisler, I., & Le Grange, D. (2008). Family interventions in adolescent anorexia nervosa. Child Adolescent Psychiatry. 18, 159-173.

3 Latzer, Y., Hochdorf, Z., Bachar, E., & Canetti, L. (2002). Attachment style and family functioning as discriminating factors in eating disorders. Contemporary Family Therapy. 24, 581-598.

4 Lock, J., & Le Grange, D. (2005). Family-based treatment of eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 37, 64-67.

5 Holtom-Viesel, A, Allan, S. A systematic review of the literature on family functioning across all eating disorder diagnoses in comparison to control families. Clinical Psychology Review. Volume 34, Issue 1, Feb 2014. 29-43.