Looking Behind an Eating Disorder: Are Parents to Blame?

As someone who works with women struggling with eating disorders, I often hear that mothers are to blame for a child’s eating disorder. Mothers in my office will oftentimes offer defensive statements such as, “I am naturally thin; What can I do about it?” Or, “I like to eat healthy; I didn’t know why my daughter took it to an extreme.” Parents seem to feel that they have failed their children who develop eating disorders.


Having a family member struggle with an eating disorder is devastating as it is. Now, imagine coupling that devastation with feelings of guilt and blame.

Environmental Factors and Eating Disorders

It used to be believed that parents were responsible for illnesses in their children such as autism, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Today, however, it is understood that these disorders are biological illnesses and placing blame is misguided. Sadly, when it comes to eating disorders, the often-believed notion that parents are at fault lingers.


It should not be interpreted that environmental factors have no influence on eating disorders. Many environmental factors can, in fact, influence a child’s coping or adaptive skills. Sometimes, parents themselves struggle with appropriately managing their emotions and experiences, thus making it challenging for children to learn how to manage their own. Sometimes children pick up on their parent’s struggle with food and body image self-esteem.


However, overshadowing these environmental experiences is the fact that some children seem to have an innate resilience, while others fall into a spiral that is hard to come out of. While stressful or chaotic family dynamics could intensify or sustain eating disorders, it must be emphasized that they are not the cause of the illness.



What Does Cause an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders do not have one known cause. There are many complex factors, including biological, environmental, and social structures that join together to form the illness. Some of these factors include:


1) Coping Skills. Often, individuals develop eating disorders as an unhealthy way to manage emotions. These individuals lack the coping skills needed to manage intense feelings.

2) Diet Industry and Society. Chronic dieting is a strong predictor of developing an eating disorder. The diet industry encourages feelings of shame and guilt connected with food, which serves to enhance the chances of developing an eating disorder. Furthermore, society’s obsession with having the perfect, unrealistic body puts those who are vulnerable further at risk of falling into the dieting trap.

3) Genetics. Many studies show that individuals with certain genes are at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.

4) Temperament. Individuals who struggle with eating disorders often have certain temperaments that contribute to the development of the illness. Examples include perfectionism, high sensitivity, and obsessive thinking.

5) Trauma. There is a known high correlation between people who have experienced trauma and the development of eating disorders.



Help and Prevention

Families do not cause eating disorders. However, they can help their child overcome an eating disorder. Specifically, they can help foster healthy coping skills, a positive body image, and a balanced outlook on food. As is often the case, leading by example is as effective as any guidance or tutelage. One of the best things a parent can do is to create a healthy relationship with their bodies and food as well as model healthy coping skills to their children.


Have you struggled with an eating disorder? What do you think of the beliefs and approaches expressed in this article? Please share your questions, comments and advice below. 

Yocheved Rabinowitz, LCSW
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3 Comments on “Looking Behind an Eating Disorder: Are Parents to Blame?

  1. Families definitely don’t cause eating disorders. Though they can often be one of many factors. No one though can ever really cause another’s reactions.

  2. I have struggled with anorexia for several years. I must say that my parents being obsessed with how I looked and several other factors contributed to it.

  3. I am currently struggling with anorexia that was caused by abuse. While the abuse was going on, my food intake was the one and only thing I had control over, I needed it. Now, whenever my abuser comes back into my life and steps up his control over me, my eating disorder kicks in to calm me down letting me know that I do have control over something. Yes, eating disorders can be caused by abuse, though is definitely not the only factor.

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