The most common question asked by parents of children struggling with eating disorders is:
“Is the eating disorder my fault?”
In addition to a parent's stress that their child is struggling with a complex and life threatening illness, many parents have intense guilt stemming from the belief that they contributed to the development of the eating disorder. As a result of this guilt, they can tend to shoulder the burden of “fixing” their child.
The answer to this question is a resounding “no.”
Parents are never to blame for their child’s eating disorder. Even in families with significant dysfunction, eating disorders develop from a combination of factors, not because of the family’s relational challenges.
However, it’s not enough for parents to merely hear that the eating disorder is not their fault. Parents need a deeper understanding of how various factors converge in the development of an eating disorder, which is described in clinical circles as a bio-psycho-social illness.
Eating disorders are hereditary.
Research has found that genetics are responsible for 40-50% of the risk of developing an eating disorder. More specifically, a woman with a mother or sister who has anorexia nervosa is 12 times more likely to develop the disease and 4 times more likely to develop bulimia nervosa compared with the general population.
While it is important to understand that eating disorders run in families, it is equally important to accept that there is no “fault” in genetics. Eating disorders are serious, biologically-based mental illnesses, and like many medical conditions, may be passed down to from generation to generation.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses rooted in psychology
The significant psychological underpinnings of an eating disorder relate to the personality traits of the individual, as well as maladaptive patterns of thought that develop as a result of anxiousness, harm avoidance, rigidity and perfectionism.
These psychological factors drive the eating disordered behaviors, including calorie restriction, bingeing, purging and excessive exercise.
Sociocultural messages can influence the development of eating disorders.
The pervasive “thin ideal” is communicated to our children through so many mediums. Widespread use of Photoshop to manipulate images in magazines and blogs, emerging diet trends, pro-eating disorders online communities, “fat letters” from children’s schools and hurtful comments from a friend or sibling are common examples how our culture impacts our self-esteem and body image, which can contribute to the development of an eating disorder in a child with genetic and/or psychological vulnerability.
Parental involvement in the eating disorder treatment and recovery process is very important. You play a particularly vital role in protecting and maintaining eating disorder recovery for young children who lack the maturity and cognitive abilities to manage this process on their own.
You should be actively involved in the treatment process via family therapy, family meals and educational programming. Throughout the treatment experience, it is normal for parents to express and explore feelings of sadness, frustration and guilt related to their child’s illness.
Avoiding the “blame game,” expanding your emotional vocabulary to better explain how the experience of having a child with an eating disorder makes you feel, and focusing on maintaining factors (what keeps the eating disorder going), and not focusing on what caused the illness are best practices for you to make the most of your involvement in your child’s treatment and recovery.
As humans, we tend to look for cause and effect, which can lead to finger pointing when coping with a serious illness in a child.
Families do not cause eating disorders, but they play a very important role in eating disorders treatment and recovery, regardless of the age of the patient.
Parents of children with eating disorders should turn to experienced eating disorder specialists to learn more about the genetic, psychological and sociocultural factors that converge in the development of eating disorders.
Additionally, learning about eating disorder treatment and recovery, including strategies for being involved and supportive throughout this process, can help alleviate the guilt of having caused this illness and unshoulder the burden of needing to “fix” your child.