The Role of the Family in Eating Disorder Recovery

Written by: Sacha Bollas, Psy.D.
Clinical Staff of the Susan B. Krevoy Eating Disorders Program


The goal of family therapy is to establish roles that promote individuality and autonomy while maintaining a sense of family cohesion. Parents, siblings, grandparents, are all deeply affected by the presence of an eating disorder within the family system. Many family members may feel powerless and frustrated when faced with a loved one’s eating disorder, but family therapy allows them to investigate how the eating disorder has affected their own lives and how they can be supportive throughout the recovery process as well. Each member of the family can play a part and be supportive throughout the recovery process.

The therapist of a family group can support these transformations and provide links that are derived from the family’s associations. That is, the family is listened to and discovers over time that what they say contributes to understanding and that it has a potential for meaning. As the therapist makes links derived from the associations the group feels less and less as if thinking its toxic thoughts is somehow pinning someone to the ground and more like providing the group with material for thought.

In this way there is enormous potential for the family unit to bring about positive change. The patient can get far better, far faster when the whole family can be involved in constructive ways. Not only that, the person who learns to function better with family members carries these valuable interpersonal skills into other relationships as well. The family and patient can learn about the symptoms of the eating disordered and gain a better understanding of what to expect during the course of treatment. For instance, principles of good nutrition can be shared didactically.

The individual’s efforts to change are facilitated and enhanced not only by a family that understands the recovery process, but by family members who make their own parallel personal changes to accommodate the needs and requirements of the loved one. Family therapy examines the structure of the family and the nature of relationships among family members. Through therapy, patients acquire and express a sense of themselves that is separate and distinct from other family members. Family work is an essential part of the healing necessary for an individual to recover from an eating disorder.

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