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Do Parents Cause Eating Disorders?

By Edited Jul 13, 2016 0 2

A Look at the Controversy Surrounding This Disease

Are parents to blame?

Absolutely nothing changes the life of a parent in a nanosecond as much as hearing that your child is sick. Not the kind of illness that antibiotics will cure; the type that means your child is in a fight for her life.

A fight that, if she loses, will mean her death.

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the mental illness of eating disorders. One of the biggest beliefs is that if a child develops anorexia or bulimia, it that must be the cause of faulty parenting.

Why is this?

First of all, people like to assign blame to someone or something, as it is human nature to do so. It is an attempt to apply logic to an illogical situation. For every effect, there is a cause, and since society loves to blame parents for just about every ill that befalls a child, then certainly, if your son or daughter has an eating disorder, it must be Mommy and Daddy’s fault.

Then there is the evilness of schadenfreude, taking perverse pleasure in the misfortune of others. In this world of competitive parenting, where everyone has to have the best and most perfect offspring complete with honor roll grades, seeing such a child fall shows the world that your child is not as perfect as you perceive her to be.

Do Parents Cause Eating Disorders?

No one would ever finger point and blame a parent whose son or daughter is diagnosed with a horrible life threatening disease such as cancer. On the contrary. The wagons are circled, meals are delivered so parents do not have to think about this mundane task and babysitting and carpool services are offered for siblings so that their lives can go on during this chaotic period of life. People register their bone marrow to see if they are a match, and love and support are offered in abundance.

But when a child develops an eating disorder and the family falls down the rabbit hole of hell, very few parents are offered anything but a plate of blame, served with a side of guilt.

Why is there a difference in treatment when a child with cancer and a child with an eating disorder are both fighting for their lives?

The reason is that people do not understand what causes an eating disorder. People may know the definition of anorexia and bulimia or they may have read about some Hollywood actress who suffered from the condition. All of that is surface knowledge, like a young child who can recite the multiplication tables, but does not understand what 3 x 2 = 6 actually means.

Eating disorders are a mental illness. These two words, “mental illness”, conjures up fear in many adults. Unlike other diseases where you can see the enemy in an X-ray, you cannot see the demons inside a person’s head. Have they been there all along or did someone put them there (like Mommy and Daddy?)


The Experts Speak Out

The Newest Research into This Dreaded Disease

Eating Disorders and the Brain
Amazon Price: $96.95 $75.38 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 23, 2013)
This book, while academic in nature, explains fully how the brain plays a huge role in the development of eating disorders.

Eating Disorder Treatment Centers and Placing Blame

Conflicting Information About the Causation of This Illness

Besides a lack of knowledge, the medical community is somewhat divided on the topic of parents causing eating disorders.

It is interesting to note that while researching this topic, time and again the resources that point a finger at parents are found on the websites of eating disorder treatment centers. While not one states that a parents directly sets their child up to have an eating disorder, there is an implication that the environment combined with genetic tendencies plants the seed for this to occur.

On the one hand, there are studies, mostly outdated and from the 1990‘s to mid 2000‘s, that state that parents may not have directly caused their child to become an anorexic or bulimic, but they created situations for this to occur.[1] This is a rationale offered at different eating disorder treatment centers. Stress in the home, be it financial or emotional, or the pressure placed on a son or daughter, has caused your child to go off the deep end.

Centers also place blame on parents by saying that they have unintentionally created an atmosphere that is ripe for an ED to develop. An over-emphasis on appearance or criticizing a child‘s weight, having strict eating rituals, or not eating dinner together on a regular basis are all part of the complexities that contribute to a child having an eating disorder.[2]


Blaming Parents Because of Genetics

When we are conceived, there is no way to tell if the DNA is going to create a child who possesses anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. Just as we pass on eye color, hair color and height, we also pass on to our children traits that we otherwise would not ever want to give them.

According to a 2008 report for the University of Maryland Medical Center, anorexia is eight times more common in children who have relatives who suffered with the disorder. There is even research that a particular chromosome is linked to both bulimia and obesity.[3]

It is unfair to place blame on a parent because their child develops this disease simply because the trait has been passed on. It is just the roll of the dice.


The Other End of the Spectrum-It is Not the Parents' Fault

Disordered Eating Versus Eating Disorders

Do Parents Cause Eating Disorders?
While there are those who believe that there are parental factors involved with eating disorder development, there is an entirely different perspective that is 180 degrees on the opposite side. Parents are not to blame one iota for this disease developing in their son or daughter.

In a blog post by Dr. Sarah Ravin, she discusses the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders.

Disordered eating, according to Dr. Ravin, are patterns of yo-yo dieting, eating behaviors that are rigid, and going on and off fad diets that are highly restrictive. This cycle continues for years, and the influences for it are not internal (genetically driven) but external (environment, media, the culture of “thinness”).

Eating disorders, on the other hand, are an illness that is neurologically based and primarily influenced by genetics. While she believes that environment can play a role in the development of an eating disorder, that alone cannot cause it. That alone is a huge difference is placing blame on parents, and can explain why one sibling develops an eating disorder while another, who grows up in the same environment, does not.[4]

A Controversial Yet Important Book

Eating with Your Anorexic: How My Child Recovered Through Family-Based Treatment and Yours Can Too
Amazon Price: $32.90 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 23, 2013)
This is the story of how one mother helped her daughter recover from anorexia.

Laura Collins is also another advocate on the side of parents. In her landmark book, Eating With My Anorexic, she shares the story of how she helped her daughter fight against anorexia in 2002.

On her website, she states that like eating disorders, are similar to autism, bi-polar disease and depression because they are diseases of the brain.

She is the Executive Director of F.E.A.S.T. Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders. She is fully on the side of parents and how they need to be an integral part of their son or daughter’s recovery. This is similar to the Maudsley Method, where parents are on their child’s recovery team, not just a credit card who pay for their treatment and care.

Do parents cause eating disorders? In my opinion, no, they do not. Read the research and then decide for yourself.

For more information, please read:

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Eating Disorders

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?

Eating Disorders and Family Relationships

A Landmark Book in This Field

Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder
Amazon Price: $18.95 $2.00 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 23, 2013)
Parents must read this book when they discover their child has an ED. It just may help all of them.


May 22, 2013 8:43pm
You are right about society blaming parents about a child's health condition. Many people are ignorant about diseases and what causes them. What about children that inherit a disease? I'm glad that you wrote an article about this subject. America has been dragging its feet for too many years on mental illness. We have to educate ourselves and eliminate the stigma of it. Thank you mommymommymommy.
Jun 1, 2013 2:31pm
You are right-people are afraid to confront and discuss mental illness. Once the stigma is erased, then families who have children suffering from eating disorders can come out from the shadows.
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  1. "About Eating Disorders." Integrated Health Solutions. 15/04/2013 <Web >
  2. Rachel "Family Life: How Eating Disorders Change Everything." www.casapalmera.com. 28/03/2008. 15/04/2013 <Web >
  3. "Eating Disorders-Causes." http://www.umm.edu/. 01/22/2009. 15/04/2013 <Web >
  4. Dr. Sarah Ravin "We'll Always Have Fiji." www.drsarahravin.com. 15/04/2013 <Web >

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