Impact on family/carers

Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be a highly stressful and challenging job. You are likely to experience a range of emotions, from the initial discovery of the illness to the ups and downs of the recovery process. Others will also be affected, particularly siblings and other family members living with the person who has the eating disorder.

The initial discovery

  • Carers have described a number of responses in realising that their loved one has an eating disorder. Some of the common reactions are listed below:
  • disbelief
  • shock
  • anger (particularly when not much is known about the nature of eating disorders and they mistakenly believe the person has chosen to have the disorder)
  • confusion (about why this has happened and what to do next)
  • guilt and blame
  • anxiety, apprehension and fear about the future
  • grief
  • a sense of relief with diagnosis.

Ongoing care

Having a family member who is experiencing an eating disorder is can be challenging for the whole family. Understandably, family members react in different ways. There may be tension at meal times, or a change in the way the family socialises. The person with the eating disorder may feel distant from the rest of the family members. Sometimes, other family members can feel left our or neglected, which can create feelings of resentment. Other common reactions cited by siblings and partners are feelings of powerlessness, anger, sadness, worry, and social and emotional withdrawal.

Ongoing care of someone who has an eating disorder can be exhausting and difficult. It is not uncommon for carers to experience high levels of stress, particularly where they are finding it difficult to access information or treatment. Stigma associated with mental health problems and living with someone who experiences mental health issues can also cause carers to feel isolated, less supported by friends or family.

When faced with the threat of an eating disorder, people experience many complex emotions. Family members are encouraged to avoid becoming angry towards or critical of the person with the eating disorder, so as to support them to adhere to treatment and recover. This can be difficult and therefore it requires a lot of self-reflection, compassion, optimism and perseverance.

Caring for the carer
It is extremely important that carers take care of themselves. Taking time out to do things that you enjoy and nurture other relationships will help to reduce the impact of the eating disorder. Establishing boundaries in caring for your loved one is also important. This means taking a loving but firm approach to their recovery, and ensuring siblings and/or partners are not constantly ‘pushed aside’.

Consider seeking individual, couples or family counselling to help manage the distress and other common responses that arise. It is also possible to talk with other carers of people with eating disorders, see Services & Support for Carers for ways to connect with these support groups.

Looking after someone with an eating disorder requires patience, compassion and determination. Remember that you do not have to do it alone.