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01-19 The emotional impact of eating disorders on families

The emotional impact of eating disorders on families

An eating disorder changes everything. Families and friends experience personal pain as they watch someone they love slowly destroying themselves and feel helpless in trying to save them. The very basic experience of having a family dinner and talking about how the day went transforms into silence and nervous tension.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry assessed the experience of caregivers for someone dealing with anorexia nervosa. Researchers qualitatively assessed narratives written by parents that shared their concerns for their children and themselves. The following emotional trends emerged:


Parents often engaged in self and mutual blame. Mothers and fathers equally placed blame on themselves, questioning their upbringing and what they could have done differently to prevent the illness.


Caregivers are often perplexed about the cause and contributing factors of the illness. Most parents understood the illness to be chronic and disabling, expressing pessimism about their daughter’s ability to overcome the illness and lead a “normal life.”


Parents saw their kids become more dependent and demanding, with lower self-worth. Fathers expressed greater concern for their daughter’s deteriorating physical health, whereas mothers expressed greater regret over missed opportunities.

Many regarded their child as a victim with no control over the outcome. Most parents expressed their own helplessness in trying to control the illness, as they considered any attempt to help on their part as unproductive.


Researchers noted a profound effect of the illness upon caregivers, as approximately half expressed a sense of being manipulated by the illness. Parents described a dependent relationship with most of their time being dominated by the patient and his or her unreasonable demands. All relationships became conflicted and stressful. Their own mental and physical health was impacted alongside the effects on the family’s social life and difficulties in making future plans.

Siblings can also become resentful at their sister or brother for taking priority over other family members and causing strife in the family dynamic.


Beneath all the anger, blaming and resentment lies the sinking fear that the loved one might die. This apprehension can consume the day, whether at work or elsewhere.

What can you do?

Watching a person that you love suffer is always painful. An eating disorder, however, worsens the stress because to anyone who has not experienced the disorder, it seems to be so simple and easy to get better.

It is not.

Eating disorders affect the brain and can potentially turn the act of eating food into something terrifying. Parents and families often need to educate themselves through resources that can help them understand the physical and mental effects of the disorder. Research and learning about eating disorders will put the entire family in a better place to recover.

Even though this may be difficult to accept, you alone cannot save your child. You can encourage, support and provide unconditional love, but patients must want to save themselves.

Sovereign Health’s Eating Disorder Program focuses on not just the treatment of the patient but emphasizes the recovery of the family as well. Our family support program equips parents with skills to manage the illness that may improve outcomes by reducing interpersonal maintaining factors. If you and your child are struggling to regain control of your lives, contact us right away.

Written by Sana Ahmed, Sovereign Health Group writer

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