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Talking care of siblings of someone with an eating disorder – a personal story

Submitted by Anna

Our daughter Emily developed an eating disorder, anorexia, at around the age of 14. She had started cutting down what she was eating which we initially thought was understandable, as someone now more aware of her physical self; but it quickly became much more than that and the realisation that we were all powerless to stop what was happening was the moment where normal family life became suspended.

The shock and fear took hold and all our focus was on our daughter. It took a while to notice that our son, Tom, who at 12 years old needed us very much too. He said much later that he thought at that time that his family had fallen apart and didn’t know if life would ever go back to normal. He really wanted a sense of normality back and felt annoyed by the mayhem Emily was causing – although at the same time he felt sorry for her as he could see her distress. He hated the disruption, especially when it came to holidays; we really needed them, but they were probably the most challenging times as we were without our normal routines.

“Looking back, it was such a tender age for him, he had just started secondary school and it was a critical time in his own development, physically and emotionally.”

Tom’s response was to lay low, to not say anything so that he didn’t add to the burden of the situation. Because he seemed ok and still had his football, we didn’t see the extent of the impact it was having on him. It was only when he started getting into a bit of trouble at school that we realised that he needed more of our attention. We were really fortunate that he had a thoughtful and sensitive tutor at the time who made a big difference and for whom we will always be grateful. I was able to communicate to her that what was going on in school, was likely to be in part at least, a reaction to the situation at home. She understood immediately and from that conversation we kept in touch, as and when we needed to via email. She kept an eye out for him and would take him aside to talk to him whenever she felt he needed it. His dad and I started to be much more aware of him too, gave him more time and instigated conversations that helped him understand what was going on. His upset didn’t go away, but he had enough understanding and hope, and enough of our time, to make it all much more manageable.

During her illness, my daughter withdrew from relationships and this included her brother. In the evenings we developed a routine of watching favourite TV shows together; something fairly light-hearted, often comedy, which worked as a distraction, a way of ending the day well whatever else had happened – and also enabling Emily to spend time with her family without the risk of conversations she didn’t want! The TV shows gave her and her brother easy, undemanding time together and something they could both enjoy and talk about. They got to know those shows so incredibly well through so many re-watches, that years later they still reference them and laugh; it’s a bit like a secret and bonding language. Having said that, as they’ve got older and followed their own paths we’ve been aware that outside the shared enjoyment of tv shows, they missed out on knowing each other during their teen years, and so the norm has been not to be very in touch. Emily is closer to myself and her dad having been so reliant on us for so long, but it’s taken time to re-establish her relationship with her brother. She has said that she feels embarrassed and guilty about what she put her brother through which has meant that she is even now, years later, hesitant to demand anything of him. He has said that he felt isolated from her during those years, as he couldn’t relate to her at all. Technological advances have been invaluable in enabling families to be in touch easily, and that has been enormously helpful for us; her brother can’t be quiet for that long!

“With encouragement from us, and with as much subtleness that a parent can muster, we have tried to encourage their relationship independently of us.”

It is a gradual process but I can see that their relationship is growing; we are lucky that they like each other and have plenty in common; they had just been out of touch for a long time and needed time to re-connect.

As I write, Emily is bringing her friends home for the weekend for the first time and has asked Tom and his girlfriend to come home too, which he has arranged to do. This feels like a significant moment which deserves the absence of parents! They are communicating that they want to be part of each other’s lives, eight years since Emily was diagnosed with anorexia. At last, this feels like Emily and Tom’s natural relationship, free from the legacy of Emily’s eating disorder, and the last piece of the jigsaw to normal family life.

If you are a parent navigating family relationships whilst supporting a child (of any age) with an eating disorder, support is available.  We are here to listen to any worries that you may have and to provide practical support and guidance.

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