Siblings often feel forgotten about when an eating disorder occurs at home. Suddenly a lot of attention can be focused on the person suffering and siblings may feel left out or invisible. At the same time siblings have to cope with living in a situation which has suddenly become very stressful. They too experience the arguments, the unbearably tense family meals, and the anxiety over what will happen next.
If your brother or sister has an eating disorder, remember that it is OK for you to find the situation hard as well. It may be difficult for you to find time and space which is not dominated by the eating disorder, so see if you can arrange to spend time with friends or with other family members which is just for you. A regular time with your mum or dad on your own can give you space to chat and to make sure there is time for you.
Siblings often struggle with feeling guilty or with worrying if something they have said or done caused the eating disorder. Remember that an eating disorder is very complicated. You will not have caused it! All siblings argue sometimes, and during those arguments most people say things they later regret. If there are genuine things you wish you had not said then why not write a letter, email or send a card and let your brother or sister know. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you love them. If you can find time to spend with them without the eating disorder being at the front of everyone’s mind, this will be really helpful – so if there are things you used to do together, try to keep doing them!
Finally, it’s not unusual for siblings to struggle with thoughts and feelings about their own eating or weight. With so much focus and discussion about these things you might find yourself thinking about them in a way you wouldn’t usually. Make sure you find a channel to talk about these things. It may be that someone from school or somewhere else – an older friend, counsellor or youth worker – can meet up with you from time to time so that you have some space to share your thoughts. Remember that you do still have your own needs – don’t feel guilty for these or try to suppress them.
“I felt frightened and helpless – a bit of a spare part really. I also felt angry at the situation and with everyone. The advice and support we received helped me understand my feelings and made me realise that I did have a part to play in my sister’s recovery and that together we could all get her through.”
Some Practical Suggestions
Communicate with your parents so that they can understand the situation from your perspective and the impact your sibling’s eating disorder is having upon you. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel too much pressure or responsibility. Keeping lines of communication open will ensure everyone is being heard at all times.
An eating disorder is a psychological illness and therefore affects a person’s mind and their character. It can feel as if the person you know and love has gone and in their place is somebody you don’t know and can’t relate to in the same way. An eating disorder can make a person act differently and your sibling’s behaviour might have become quite irrational and they may experience mood swings, which can be quite frightening for you as a brother or sister. Remember that they are still the same person but that they are just struggling and therefore need more support. Do treat them like normal, (however difficult this is for you) and refrain from either directly tackling them on the subject of food and eating or avoiding it altogether. Spend more time together and remind them of the good times you’ve had in the past – reminiscing can help you to feel closer and is a good way to lead into a deeper conversation.
As a sibling you’re in a really good place as your brother or sister can often feel most comfortable talking to you. You will have a different view of the issues your sibling is struggling with and you may be able to better understand any social or academic pressures they may be facing and help them to identify what could be behind their worries. It is tempting to avoid socialising with them, especially if they have become withdrawn but do include them in social activities and group events. An eating disorder can cause the person to be particularly introspective; helping them to look to future goals can help gain a wider perspective.
It can feel very lonely at times and it’s important to make time for yourself and have a network of supportive people available. You may only want to talk to one person, a good friend, teacher or even a professional, or you might feel able to confide in a few trusted people. It might be a good idea to let a teacher, work colleague/manager, a person in whom you trust, know about the issues you’re coping with at home so they can help with any work commitments or academic pressure. Getting involved in group activities, such as team sports, clubs, societies can help you to feel less alone and can help to distract you from your worries about your sibling and the issues at home.
Your own eating habits and body image. When food has become such an issue and an area of upset and conflict, it’s easy to lose the enjoyment of eating and mealtimes. You may feel anxious around the thought of eating as a family and your own appetite might even be affected. It’s important that you communicate any anxieties you have around your own eating and/or body image to a person you trust, so you can chat through some of underlying emotions.
Whatever your role in the family, remember that there are places you can get support and advice that is relevant to your particular situation. ABC can help direct you to places and people in your locality and we can also provide help and strategies for you via our helplines and email support, giving you the ability to discuss events that are personal to your situation. Sometimes getting a different perspective with someone who really understands the situation and has "been there" can help allay some fears or give you a different approach. We're here for you too!