Support For Family And Friends

The physical and psychological effects of anorexia nervosa on eating-disordered persons are well-known. Less obvious is the fact that the illness exacts a similar toll on family and friends. It is important for loved ones to not only educate themselves about this condition, but to seek support and counseling for their own well-being.

Anorexia nervosa does not exist in a vacuum. It is maintained by family dynamics. Previous articles discussing the role of culture have suggested that the concept of “family” can be expanded to include peers and society.

Parents and loved ones should not blame themselves for a child’s anorexia. Dysfunctional families can produce healthy offspring, and the healthiest families sometimes produce anorexics. Most people bring up their daughters as best they can. Everyone makes mistakes. Although there is a natural impulse to feel guilty, punishing yourself for a child’s anorexia solves nothing and is detrimental to your health. It’s like two people with normal eyesight torturing themselves for having a blind baby.

Or take the reverse situation: family members blaming anorexics. I was furious with my anorexic mother for years after her death. I blamed her for many of my personal difficulties. But eventually, I realized that it’s more important to look to the future than dwell on the past.

Blame is easy. Taking practical steps toward health is tough but ultimately rewarding.

In addition to providing referrals to therapists, Edreferral.com offers cogent advice to family members, such as:

1. Maintain normal eating patterns. Do not let the anorexic shop or cook for the family. Although such nurturing behavior seems altruistic, it allows her to deny her own need for food.

2. Set firm but reasonable limits.

3. Show affection and appreciation for each other. Anorexia is driven by low self-esteem. Warmth and caring are effective counterweights.

4. Avoid power struggles and discussions of weight. Let the therapist deal with those issues.

5. Keep a diary. Diaries and other forms of written communication (e.g. letters) provide emotional release and insight. They may also contain material for productive therapy sessions.

Edreferral.com has particularly excellent advice for fathers. Many of these pointers apply equally well to mothers or other close relatives, among them:

1. Listen. Focus on the girl’s hopes, dreams and aspirations instead of on how she looks.

2. Discourage dieting.

3. Participate in physical activities with your girl. Sports— or even long walks— help build personal relationships while having fun. An added bonus, according to the site, is that athletic girls are less likely to get pregnant, drop out of school, or get involved with abusive partners.

4. Get involved in her school. Possibilities include coaching, teaching, helping with a play, and chaperoning.

Another excellent source for family and friends is a site by Cheryl A. Wildes. Canadians will be interested in the information on the Anorexia Bulimia Nervosa Foundation of Victoria.

Ednewsletter.com, in operation since January 1999, is an online publication for parents of eating disordered children. It features interviews with professionals, information about treatment centers, poetry and book reviews. You can read the first issue for free.

Something-fishy has extensive bulletin boards and chatrooms for friends and family of people with eating disorders. There are separate groups for parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and other loved ones. You have to register to be able to post messages, but you can “lurk” by typing in “guest” as your name and password. A new discussion area has just been set up for children, but only those over age 16 can post. Too bad this wasn’t available when I was growing up.