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Eating disorders are destructive and complex

It’s a myth that eating disorders only affect young people (and girls). While the average age of onset is 13 – 24yrs, a person can develop the disorder at any age.

Often mistaken as ‘diets gone wrong’, an eating disorder is not really about food or weight. It is an extremely complex and destructive mental illness that affects every aspect of a person’s functioning – how they behave, how they eat, how they think, their physical well being, and at its core, how the person feels.

Although to the outside world the focus seems to be on food and weight, for the person those are a way to express and manage underlying distress and turmoil.

Simply put, an eating disorder is a destructive coping mechanism to manage daily life. That’s why it is so hard for a person to change.

Everybody has coping mechanisms and most aren’t good for us, like excess alcohol, smoking, having too much coffee.

If someone tells you to stop, naturally we get defensive. It’s no different for someone with an eating disorder. Resistance to change is normal.

When a person develops an eating disorder the whole family is affected – no matter what age the person is.

People often describe the eating disorder invading their house, taking it over, and ‘ruling the roost’ so to speak.

Parents in particular struggle to know what to do and describe it as ‘walking on eggshells’.

Feeding their child is something they have done since birth and suddenly they lose confidence in their ability. Their child (no matter what age) no longer thinks logically about how to nourish themselves. Their child is now being controlled by this destructive disorder.

Families, and especially parents need support to cope.

They can quickly move from being a parent to being a carer, dealing with a person who is ill with a disorder that is complex, life threatening and irrational.

Parents need knowledge, information, skills and support to build resilience to support their loved one to recovery.

It is absolutely possible to recover from an eating disorder. Parents often play a vital part.

Supporting families is at the heart of Bodywhys, The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland’s work since 1995.

They developed a family support programme – the PiLaR Programme. On one evening a week for four weeks, families meet to learn about eating disorders, about the mindset of a person with a disorder, communication skills, how to avoid arguments and power struggles, how to manage mealtimes, treatment and relapse, all the while being supported.

The programme is free and anyone supporting a person with an eating disorder can attend.

Starting in September Bodywhys is running three programmes before Christmas, in Donegal, Dublin and Waterford. Booking is essential, email See

You should try to attend if you are caring or living with someone with an eating disorder. It is a huge help to understand and accept that the person has an eating disorder.

A course like this should be compulsory. When referral is made to CAMHS, this course should be offered during the waiting time. It empowers, informs and helps parents.

For those faced with caring for someone with an eating disorder, it is the perfect place to start. You will leave with a different perspective and feel more equipped to care for someone and yourself.

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