What to tell the sibling?
It can be very hard to explain an eating disorder to your other child/children. You know them best and will know what they can process for their age. In general, it can be better to tell siblings ‘something’ rather than nothing at all (even if you believe they have no awareness as often siblings do know ‘something is up’). Siblings may also fill any gaps in their knowledge themselves from their imagination, stereotypes in society, things they’ve read or seen in movies, or misinformed reading they have done online etc. In general it can be helpful to keep it simple and short, giving the sibling permission to ask anything about it and to let them know it would be typical to have mixed feelings and to be feel worried. It is essential to let the sibling know they are not to blame and that their brother/sister is not doing this on purpose. Beat explain eating disorders in the following way:
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that involve disordered eating behaviour… It is important, though, to remember that eating disorders are not about food. Instead, the eating behaviour might be a coping mechanism or a way for the sufferer to feel in control.”
“Eating disorders are not contagious, and your sibling is not ‘crazy’… they are not all about appearance and weight – they are about much more than food. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, but they are treatable” (from Beat Carer Booklet)
Suggesting you will talk about this again with them at a later date can allow sibling the time to process this information and formulate any questions or worries. This provides a section on talking to younger siblings about eating disorders and questions children are likely to ask about this –talking to young children toolkit.
If you don’t know the answer to a question a sibling may have, that’s okay! You can explain you are learning too and you and the child could explore potential answers together in discussion, from books, online etc., or write this question down and agree to take it to GP or therapist/treatment team. Some questions don’t have simple answers – the question ‘why has my brother/sister developed this eating disorder?’ can be an example of that. It might be helpful to express that you know it can be hard to accept that we don’t have answers, but the important thing to remember at the moment is that the family know now what the illness is and are getting help to support their sibling’s recovery. Your other child/children may also need reassurance that this is not their fault (siblings argue, but the sibling may be worried that their arguments directly caused the eating disorder) and that just because their sibling developed an eating disorder it does not mean they will automatically also develop an eating disorder.
Other families have talked about ‘how’ to start these types of conversations and solutions have sometimes included using TV/Radio shows about eating disorders or young people’s mental health as conversation starters…”What do you think about that?”, “Do you have any questions about that?”, “That is what we think your brother/sister may be struggling with at the moment” etc. Alternatively, there are booklets and videos online about eating disorders which could provide the same avenue for starting these types of conversations. These include for example short video clips such as The Role of Siblings in Family Based Treatment (FBT).