A Space of One’s Own

A Space of One’s Own

By Bridget Whitlow, LMFT & Kym Piekunka

Since our initial Gürze/Salucore ENewsletter article on the needs of sibling needs came out last December, we have continued to collect data from our 28-question survey. At the time, we had received 282 responses and over the last five months, the number of respondents has swelled to 387, ranging in age from 9 to 70 years old. Respondents also have a global reach  spanning from the United States, New Zealand, UK, Belgium, Columbia, Canada, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Saudi Arabia, to Luxembourg. With such geographical and developmental diversity, and an average of 24 people participating in the survey per month, it is indisputable that siblings need not only a voice, but a space of their own, too. 

Thus far, 12% of the respondents have (or are) participating in family therapy, 54% are not, and 20% reported sometimes. Of those that are engaged with family therapy, only 13% said they found it helpful. This amount is disheartening and clearly indicates that more is needed to attend to siblings. Often the focus for them in family work is on how they can best support their loved one to recover, which may downgrade their own experiences, concerns, and needs. There are also many barriers to opening up about one’s own feelings and challenges, which include not wanting to upset their brother or sister, not wanting to add more stress to their parents, and, as one 25-year-old female sibling said, “not realizing I needed [support].”

Providing space within the family therapy context may not always be possible for a wide variety of reasons. As a therapist, it is important to acknowledge this and provide education, resources, and fitting referrals that address the needs of the sibling in the context of a serious condition, rather than solely as a resource for support. One 24-year-old female reported that her own therapy would have been helpful to help her “cope…as well as [to deal with] how to see your parents crumble.”

For parents, it is key to hold in mind that siblings may not share how they are doing in order to protect the family from having yet another stressor. This, however, does not mean that huge interventions are desired or needed. Acknowledging how hard it is for the sibling, checking in about their day, planning a one-on-one dog walk with no talk of the eating disorder are all things that can go a very long way. Additionally, providing resources can help siblings know they are not alone and that their feelings and experiences are valid. As one 23-year-old female shared, “having resources about the impact on siblings [would be helpful because] it can feel like I’m being a bit overemotional.”

If you are a sibling that has a brother or sister that is experiencing, or has experienced, an eating disorder, please consider taking our anonymous and confidential survey to help us identify and create the most fitting resources for you and others in your shoes. There are 28 questions and it takes an average of 7 minutes to complete. You can find it here.

While we are actively developing space for siblings, these four sites provide a place for siblings to hear from other siblings and learn about their experiences:

We look forward to hearing from you!

About the authors:  

Bridget Whitlow, LMFT is a psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She works with adolescents, adults, and families providing evidence-based therapies and specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, anxiety, gender identity, and OCD.

Since her sister Kacy’s death in 2002 from bulimia, Kym Piekunka became a speaker and advocate focusing on her sister’s experience. Over a decade later, Kym observed the reality for siblings had not progressed. In 2017, she made it her mission to give the sibling experience a voice by creating the website KymAdvocates.com. Recognizing the lack of research and support systems surrounding siblings and the eating disorder impact, she co-created an online sibling survey with Bridget Whitlow, LMFT. Currently, Kym is presenting on data results and developing sibling support systems.

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