As an eating disorders therapist specializing in FBT, I read a recent New York Times essay with great interest (Sibling Rivalry: One Long Food Fight) In the essay, the author describes growing up as one of four brothers, each competing at family meals to get the biggest hamburger, largest slice of piece, or other favorite food. He goes on to recount many other examples of siblings competing for the largest portions of treasured dishes, all the way from the human kingdom to the animal kingdom.

It is our biology to crave delicious food and to outwit others to get it…except when it is not. If you are a parent trying to refeed your child, such memories may seem distant and treasured. Family mealtimes can fuel a new brand of sibling warfare when one child at the table refuses to eat or an eating disorder otherwise rears its vicious head.

I have heard countless stories of siblings caught in the crossfire of a brother or sister’s eating difficulties. This can be especially evident and stressful at mealtimes. There are simply too many unique examples to recount them all here. Suffice it to say that eating disorders are wily beasts. They will stop at little to have their way. At meal and snack times, for example, the eating disorder will point to different portion sizes, types of food, and timing of meals and snacks of siblings to distract parents from refeeding and to interfere with the necessary tasks of recovery.

In these circumstances, externalization can be a particularly useful tool, for all members of the family. Instead of getting sucked into the twisted logic of the eating disorder, remember that the EATING DISORDER has temporarily taken over your child/sibling. You are working to bring back your child/brother/sister; they are not present at the moment—the eating disorder is. Negotiating with the eating disorder– by cutting back on a portions, taking away a feared food, or otherwise altering the refeeding plan, due to fear and bullying by the eating disorder–will only lengthen the struggle of the whole family to kick the eating disorder to the curb.

When you remember that your treasured loved one is not in charge right now, the eating disorder is, you are able to respond with firmness, kindness, and clarity. This spares siblings from becoming further bait in the eating disorder war and maximizes the opportunity for them to offer the kindness and crucial support that will eventually help their loved one on the road to recovery.