When Food Is Family

Key ingredients in the eating disorder mix

Issues in Attachment That May Contribute to Eating Disorders

Looking at how attachment issues may be part of an entangled web of causes.

The majority of parents deeply feel and convey love for their children. The majority of parents of children with eating disorders are no different. There has been a lot of confusion and knee-jerk reactions to what attachment issues are and how they may contribute to eating disorders. But to be clear, attachment issues have nothing to do with a parent’s capacity to love their child. 

Issues in attachment can be both subtle and profound. They relate to a child’s capacity to feel safe, trusting and understood by their parents. They also relate to parents’ capacity to empathize with their child throughout life. Attachment issues can likewise relate to a family’s capacity to allow, tolerate and express emotion—especially negative ones—and to allow healthy and appropriate autonomy of thought, along with emotional and physical separations.

For a child with an eating disorder, this means the ability for a parent to empathize with their suffering child, her feelings and perspective, despite how irrational or harmful her behavior may be. However, expressing empathy does not negate taking action when faced with a child whose behavior is self-destructive.

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Eating disorders occur in all types of families—everything from single parents who may have limited time to give their child the emotional attention she needs, to families where both parents are present and available. Eating disorders also occur in families where eating patterns are “normal.” Even so, there are many ways attachment can go awry, and for a child who may be biologically or in other ways oriented toward developing an eating disorder, family dynamics and other relational and environmental factors can impact and influence the outcome.  Following are some of the most common attachment issues, and ones that are discussed in my book, When Food is Family: A loving approach to heal eating disorders:

  • The child feels or is frequently criticized, shamed or blamed.
  • The child is not valued for who she is, is seen as an extension of the parent’s unfulfilled dreams rather than as a unique person, and is expected to live up to a parental or family ideal.
  • A parent is “controlling,” “over-involved” or “overprotective.”
  • A parent is regularly overindulgent toward the child and is unable to tolerate the child being upset or angry.
  • A parent takes a “quick-fix” approach rather than resolving something over time with thoughts, feelings and reason.
  • A parent is unavailable emotionally for the child because the parent is consumed by her own interests or has untreated depression, substance abuse or an eating disorder.
  • A parent feels jealousy and/or envy toward a child, or is disappointed because the child does not emulate the parent.
  • A parent has unresolved conflicts from her own childhood and carries them into her relationship with her own children.
  • A child is forced to witness marital conflict, is brought into the conflict by parents, or is somehow used as a surrogate, confidant, arbiter or ally against the other parent.
  • A child becomes the family scapegoat.
  • Parents measure emotional health by what activities a child is doing or how well the child does in school—i.e. the child’s value is measured by what the child does rather than who she is.
  • The family cannot identify, put a name to or discuss emotions. This often leaves a child feeling detached from her feelings or that feelings do not matter.
  • A family that reinforces or encourages the child to be perfect is unaware of the pressure and ultimate insecurity this generates in their child.
  • A family accepts only positive emotions and denies or suppresses negative emotions or conflicts; common responses include, “Don’t be angry,” “There’s nothing to be sad about,” or “Why are you being so emotional?”
  • Parents who don’t allow their child to appropriately work things out on her own, or who encourage their child to seek the parents’ input, i.e. the “controlling” parent, so that the child doubts her own experience and opinion and may not be able to make decisions on her own.
  • A family fails to talk on a consistent basis about significant events and the emotions surrounding them, such as divorce, death, separations, breakups, moving and other life changes.

It is important to note, that none of these reasons alone is the sole cause of eating disorders, but rather, may be a part of an entangled web of causes. Also, keep in mind, attachment issues relate not to the occasional mishap, but rather have become patterned responses or issues over a long enough period of time to have negatively affected a child bound for an eating disorder. 

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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