National Eating Disorders Association
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Siblings of People in Eating Disorder Recovery Need a Voice

Kym Piekunka and Bridget Whitlow, MS, LMFT

Siblings are our longest relationships. Often, a sibling is our first best friend. We love them deeply, hate them at moments and know both their strengths and weaknesses.

When a sibling has an eating disorder, there is an impact, but what is it exactly? 

SIBLINGS NEED A VOICE

The sibling perspective is rarely discussed or studied but one that is central and vital not only to the person experiencing an eating disorder but to the health of the sibling themselves. There are several blogs, books, and journals touting siblings as an important resource in the recovery process, however, the emphasis of sibling's own support, resources, and tools in order to comprehend and cope with this role is left untouched.

THE SIBLING EXPERIENCE

To watch a sibling disappear to an eating disorder can leave siblings feeling helpless, scared, angry, guilty, lonely and sad. For some, their family foundation may seem as if it is cracking as they witness the stress and complex emotions their parents are experiencing. What used to be routine such as mealtime, often becomes a dreaded event. Interactions digress to arguments, tantrums, yelling and/or pleading. A sibling may take on the role as mediator or feel responsible to fix their sibling’s behaviors. They may also retreat finding reprieve by watching TV or going online.

For the sibling, family life has changed significantly, yet, they still must navigate their own day-to-day challenges. The time and attention they once received from their parents has been redirected towards the ill sister or brother. This can lead to resentment or a sense they are misplaced and alone. Guilt may follow as the sibling fully comprehends the eating disorder could be life-threatening. In response, the sibling may develop behavioral issues, withdrawal, immerse themselves in friends and school activities or become the “good child” attempting not to upset their parents further.  

GIVING SIBLINGS TOOLS & SUPPORT

Over the years we’ve heard several sibling stories. One thing is clear, when a sibling has an eating disorder, siblings want to help them find recovery. But, without educating siblings, providing them with needed support and tools, validating their feelings and giving them time and attention, siblings struggle too and may get lost.  

SURVEY FOR SIBLINGS!

In order to discern the full impact on siblings, a comprehensive understanding of the sibling experience is required. A variety of factors may contribute to different experiences and needs: age, the relationship prior to the eating disorder, the length of the eating disorder, behaviors of the ill sibling, the presence of other mental health issues or addictions and if the family is included in the treatment process.  

Bridget Whitlow, LMFT and I have created a survey for siblings to gather this data! We would like to learn more about the sibling experience as well as how to better support their unique challenges. The survey is confidential and takes an average of eight minutes to complete. To participate, you must be a sister or brother with a sibling who has or has had an eating disorder. Your sibling may be any age and at any stage of recovery; including no treatment, seeking or receiving treatment, or deceased.

To help us learn more about the sibling experience and how best to support them, please take our survey below.

To take the survey, click here!

Kym Piekunka, has just launched kymadvocates.com, a website dedicated to provide a voice, tools and resources for siblings. Kym has been a speaker and advocate since 2002 after her sister, Kacy, died from bulimia after a 15-year battle.

Bridget Whitlow, MS, LMFT (California MFC #47928) is a licensed psychotherapist that provides psychotherapy for adolescent and adult individuals, couples, families, and groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.