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Eating Disorders

Parental Impact on Eating Disorders

From harm to healing.

Key points

  • Parents don't cause eating disorders but they can contribute to their development and maintenance.
  • Parents' resistance to treatment often stems from fear, influenced by societal pressures and diet culture.
  • Cultivating self-awareness as parents can help break the cycle of harmful behaviors and beliefs.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So much of the training to be a therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders has emphasized the importance of not blaming parents for their child's eating disorder. This perspective acknowledges the complex interplay of genetic predispositions and societal influences. However, ignoring parents' significant impact in shaping their children's relationship with food and their bodies and, in some cases, their contribution to the development and maintenance of their child's eating disorder would be shortsighted and negligent.

Challenging the Status Quo

Consider this scenario: If a family sought help for a child's alcohol abuse, while the parents regularly drank alcohol in front of the child or openly discussed their favorite alcoholic beverages, it would rightly raise concerns. Addressing such behavior, assessing the parents' relationship with alcohol, and establishing boundaries to support the child's recovery would be standard practice. Why should it be any different when it comes to eating disorders?

Resistance and Fear

I've encountered parents resistant to their child's meal plans or weight gain expectations, even in dire circumstances where the child's physical and mental health is severely compromised. Some parents have gone so far as to accuse me of promoting unhealthy habits, citing concerns about their child's social status or mood changes. Yet beneath their resistance lies a profound fear fueled by their entanglement in diet culture.

Empathy Amid Cultural Pressures

I empathize with these parents, recognizing that they, too, are victims of societal pressures and the misinformation perpetuated by diet culture. It's not only fear and helplessness but also their beliefs, shaped by messages that fuel insecurity to sell products and services, maintaining a harmful status quo. However, a part of me yearns to shake them awake and tell them bluntly: "You are harming your children." My emotional activation is born out of a desire to help their child and also to help them break free from this cycle of harmful beliefs and behaviors.

Confronting Harmful Beliefs

As we reflect on the influence of societal norms on our perceptions of body image, let's pose some critical questions to these families: If your child faced bigotry at school because of their skin color, would you suggest they lighten their skin to fit in? Or would you convey the message that they are not the problem and the kids teasing them are? Such questions encourage us to confront the biases ingrained in our culture and consider the true impact of our actions on our children's well-being and society as a whole. It's a call to challenge the harmful norms perpetuated by society and embrace a more compassionate and accepting approach toward ourselves and our loved ones.

Photo by Tyson on Unsplash
Photo by Tyson on Unsplash

Critical Reflection

Furthermore, it's crucial to acknowledge that every time parents engage in certain behaviors, they unknowingly plant seeds for eating disorders or tumultuous relationships with food and body image. Whether it's making disparaging remarks about their bodies or others', categorizing food as "good" or "bad," constantly going on and off diets, promoting exercise solely for weight loss, or hyper-focusing on appearance as a measure of worth, these actions contribute to a toxic environment. Each instance reinforces damaging beliefs and attitudes, shaping how children perceive themselves and their relationship with food. It may be that a child is not so afraid of gaining weight but of being judged and rejected, even by their parents.

Final Thoughts

We must recognize parents' profound influence on children's relationship with food and body image. Challenging harmful beliefs and behaviors rooted in diet culture can pave the way for healthier, more sustainable relationships with food and ourselves. This journey of self-discovery and growth is not just for the child but for the entire family unit. And it starts with a willingness to question, challenge, and embrace change.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Carolyn Karoll LCSW-C, CEDS-S
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