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.
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:
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.