Advice for parents supporting siblings
Eating disorders can lead to huge changes within the family and affect day to day life for everyone. Meal times can become tense and ‘normal’ family activities such as trips out or holidays may be cancelled or become less enjoyable.
Parents may understandably direct a lot of their time and attention to the child with the eating disorder. Often siblings describe experiencing a wide range of feelings including confusion, anger, guilt, jealousy and worry. It is important to acknowledge that siblings may be facing the stresses of school friendships and finding their own identity, as well as coping with the illness of their brother or sister.
Siblings play an important role in the lives of those with an eating disorder and often have a part in the recovery process. Family based treatment will generally involve siblings, whether that is within individual family appointments or multi-family workshops where several families join together. Siblings can contribute in different ways to their brother or sister’s recovery including providing friendship, support, a sense of normality and being models of normal, relaxed eating.
It is important that siblings are supported during what can be a difficult time. We have put together a few top tips for helping to support a sibling of someone with an eating disorder. We have also developed a section for siblings on how to support their brother or sister with an eating disorder – you may want to recommend they take a look.
Top tips for parents and other caregivers
Share what you know about eating disorders with siblings. Provide them with age-appropriate information on the eating disorder diagnosis and treatment. Give them the opportunity to ask questions, you may not be able to answer all of them, that’s OK. Having an understanding of what is happening to their brother or sister and why they may be acting the way they are can help them to cope with what is happening and reduce any blame siblings may feel.
Remind siblings that their brother or sister is being supported by you and a professional care team. Siblings may try to take on extra responsibility for caring for their brother or sister and this can cause siblings to feel under pressure and may lead to unnecessary anxiety. Let them know that what their sibling needs most is their brother or sister to act as normally as possible.
Ensure you make time to spend one-to-one quality time with your other children away from the eating disorder and focus solely on them and what’s happening in their lives.
Spend time together with the whole family away from the eating disorder, this may be difficult but taking ‘time out’ as a family can be really beneficial. This may be playing a board game or watching a film together.
Talk with siblings about how they are feeling, both about the eating disorder and their life in general. Often siblings will try to hide their feelings from their parents due to fear of burdening them. Let them know it’s ok and normal to feel angry, worried, sad or resentful in this situation.
Encourage siblings to speak to someone they trust about how they are feeling. That may be a close friend, someone from school or a family friend. They will be experiencing a lot of different emotions and it can be a very confusing time, it is important they have someone who they can confide in. Siblings may experience anxiety or other mental health difficulties which may need professional support, if you feel this is the case, speak to your GP about what support services they or school might be able to offer.
Siblings may be invited to attend appointments with CAMHS. Discuss this with the sibling; let them know it can be a good opportunity for them to learn about the eating disorder and what treatment and support is being offered to their brother or sister.
Some siblings may not want to know about the eating disorder or be involved in treatment; this can be a normal response. It is important to be sensitive to this, however continue to ‘listen out’ for any signs of curiosity.
Encourage siblings as best you can to continue to attend social groups/after school clubs. It is important that they continue to live as ‘normally’ as possible and have time away from the eating disorder to recharge.
Acknowledge that family life has changed and that life at home may be feeling very difficult. Let them know that although you may be spending a lot of time with their brother/sister that you still love them just as much.
Take care of yourself! Ensure that you have someone who you can speak to; children are able to pick up on stress in the family and allowing yourself ‘down time’ can help to reduce burn out that can affect the whole family.
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Page last reviewed: 12 January, 2023