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How Family Members Play a Role in Recovery

A study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that the average length of time a person spends in an inpatient eating disorder program is 83 days. During that time, the family might be asked to play a role, by participating in therapy and learning how to amend destructive family behaviors, but the family might also be asked to help when the treatment program is over and the person returns home once more.

Examining Patterns


All families are different, and people who have eating disorders can also differ from one another in ways both large and small. As a result, it’s hard to state exactly what families will need to accomplish in their therapy programs, as each family might have its own set of issues to examine and work through. However, research suggests that most eating disordered families have traits in common that can lead to disordered thinking and distorted eating. This Emotional Life suggests that these patterns include:

  • Rigid sets of rules, inexpertly applied
  • Strictly defined family roles
  • An air of secrecy
  • Suspicion of outsiders
  • Serious tone
  • Lack of respect or boundaries
  • Resistance to change

In family therapy sessions, the group can examine patterns like this and identify how they might have started, and what might be done to amend them in the future. Families can learn how to communicate clearly and support one another lovingly. In addition, families can also learn more about eating disorders, and they can come up with effective plans they can put into place if the person with the disorder begins to exhibit unhealthy symptoms in the future.

Remaining Available

When formal treatment programs are complete, the person might still struggle with lingering urges to control calories or slim down. Being thrust back into an environment that once supported the eating disorder can be difficult, causing intense cravings, pressure and pain. Family members can help by remaining available and understanding. They can listen to the person discuss all of these thoughts and feelings, working hard to avoid placing blame or making judgments about the thoughts. Family members can also prompt the person they love to go to support group meetings or call a counselor when the pressure seems too high for the person to handle alone. Just providing emotional support can be the best gift that family members can give. During this crucial time, it’s common for family members to watch over the person’s weight. These family members might remark on each and every calorie the person takes in, or they might praise the person for an added pound. While these behaviors might seem helpful, they could be doing more harm than good as they train the person to believe that weight is the only thing that will garner praise. It’s a sign of disordered thinking, and it’s dangerous. Families can help by providing praise for things that have nothing to do with weight. Remarking on a person’s writing ability, job promotion, good grades, social contacts or caring personality can help the person to remember that there’s more to life than weight. Living with someone who has an eating disorder can be a challenge, and family members sometimes feel as though they don’t quite know what to say or do to help the person they love. At Futures of Palm Beach, we can help. We provide family education workshops that can help families to understand the disorders and learn how to help. Call our toll-free line to find out more.