The Parents’ Role in Eating Disorders

· September 28, 2018

Forcing them to eat, punishing them, getting angry at them… definitely not understanding what’s happening to their kids. Many parents don’t know what to do when they suspect that one of their children may be suffering from an eating disorder. Many of them go into denial, believing that it’s impossible that whatever is going on is actually happening. The role parents have in eating disorders is very complicated.

That just can’t be happening to my child, it’s impossible for them to suffer from bulimia or anorexia. This attitude is counterproductive when there is a well-founded suspicion, since denial can delay the diagnosis and complicate the intervention. We can’t blame parents for having such an attitude. Fear is a common emotion and it affects us all in one way or another. If parents postpone taking their child to a consultation, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want what’s best for them.

On the other hand, teenage years tend to be very difficult. The changes that young people experience in that stage can lead to internal and external conflicts. Screams, fights, lack of understanding, and phrases such as “That is teenage nonsense”, along with the social pressure that exists in many cases, causes many eating disorders to be diagnosed too late.

The role parents have in eating disorders is very complicated. They have to accept what’s happening and then put some strategies in motion to help their children.

Family dynamics and the parents’ role in eating disorders

There are several studies that have analyzed the influence of family dynamics on eating disorders. For example, in their publication Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context, Bernice L. Rosman, Lester Baker, and Salvador Minuchin tried to find common patterns in families with a record of at least one case of anorexia nervosa.

The results shed some light on the family dynamics that used to predominate. Some of them were insecure attachment patterns, overprotection, rigidity, lack of communication, and involving children in parental conflicts.

“11% of girls and teenage boys are at risk of suffering from an eating disorder.”

-Abb Foundation data-


Girl not listening to her mother.

Similarly, another Selvini study titled Self-Starvation discovered that families with an anorexic daughter presented the following characteristics:

  • Communication problems: not listening to and rejecting other people’s attempts to communicate.
  • Parents don’t assume leadership or responsibility.
  • Bad relationships between parents and children.
  • The children involve themselves in their parent’s problems.

These studies are focused on anorexia. However, the information could perhaps be applicable to other types of eating disorders such as bulimia. Family dynamics and the parents’ role in eating disorders are two very important factors. But are those factors the only ones?

Why do eating disorders happen?

A child’s family isn’t responsible for their eating disorder. Even though the family dynamics and the parents’ role are very important, teens can suffer from an eating disorder in a family where the aforementioned conditions don’t exist.

Another common risk factor among young people is a lack of a positive self-esteem. Moreover, low self-esteem, especially when related to body image, may be the factor that has the most influence on the development of eating disorders.

“Since when did seeking perfection become something that brings us so much suffering?”

-Anonymous-

Disorders such as depression or bipolarity can cause teens to use food as a systematic reward or punishment, eventually causing them to develop a harmful diet. This diet is based on alternating periods of binge eating and strong restrictions.

A lonely teen.

Dealing with eating disorders is difficult. Teenagers may lock themselves up in their rooms and stop communicating and listening to reason. However, scolding, punishing, and not understanding what’s happening to them can make the situation worse. Therefore, it’s important to know how to act in these cases.

The great support parents can offer when it comes to eating disorders

Parents can be a great support for any teen who is going through an eating disorder. However, they can also be what brings them down if they don’t do the right thing. They can be of great help as they tend to know their children’s patterns best and can easily detect any change in their diet. However, it’s best to seek professional help whenever parents are doubtful as to whether their child may be suffering from an eating disorder or not.

It’s normal for parents to feel frustrated if the professional’s evaluation confirms the diagnosis. They may feel their child isn’t advancing or is getting worse. Parents can even blame their child without understanding that they’re probably going through an even worse time.

On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for parents to endure rejection and rudeness. It’s likely that their child will not be receptive to the measures taken for their own protection. This is why it’s important to guide the child along with the professional. The parents must explain the measures to the child and avoid falling into the temptation of treating them as if they were a kid.

Dad helping his daughter with an eating disorder.

Guidelines and “rules” that can help

It’s necessary for parents to stay together, support each other, and express their emotions. Also, it’s important they follow the guidelines established by a professional. If they don’t trust a particular professional, they shouldn’t hesitate to make a change.

Another important guideline for parents who have to help a child with an eating disorder is to not make the disorder the center of everyone’s life. Yes, it must be dealt with. But the teen with the problem means a lot more than just that. They have dreams, hopes, and feelings… Not minimizing the “rest of their life” is, in fact, the impulse that’s needed to be able to get out of this situation.

In addition, when the teen doesn’t comply with one of the established guidelines, it’s necessary to have a conversation so that it doesn’t happen again. This conversation should be corrective, but also motivating. There are two goals: getting the teenager to commit and making sure that they’re motivated to do so. Parents can’t let their child give up, it’s not an option.

Difficult but not impossible

As we have seen, the role parents have in eating disorders is very important. However, because of the complexity of the challenge they’re facing, they need to seek professional help. Even with the help of a professional, getting through an eating disorder is a long process that requires a lot of patience, intelligence, love, and willpower.