Why is saying anything about parents and eating disorders unacceptable?

I keep hearing people say "I feel like I can't say ANYTHING bad about parents without being attacked."

Let me reassure you.

For example, you can say:

"Some parents teach their kids to hate their bodies."
"Some parents make their kids feel awful about themselves."
"There are mothers who create a toxic environment around food in their homes."
"Dads who exercise obsessively set a terrible example for their kids."
"So many parents don't have a clue about how to feed their kids."
You can even say: "Parents suck."

You can't say:
"Parents cause eating disorders in their kids by teaching them to hate their bodies."
"Some parents make their kids feel so awful about themselves they get eating disorders."
"Mothers on extreme diets push their kids into eating disorders."
"The parents of eating disorder patients suck."

It's the cause/effect connection between eating disorders - a mental illness - and parenting that is out of bounds. If you get rid of the "so" "because" "contribute to" "influence" language you can pretty much say anything you want about how rotten some parents are and how dysfunctional some are. I'm the first to admit that I'm not a perfect parent and that in the course of dealing with parents of eating disorder patients I've seen some of the most disheartening and cruel parenting imaginable.

I've mostly seen some of the most heroic and breathtaking parenting, too, and more so as it is often in the face of a society and clinical environment that is still stuck on parent pathology as a significant factor in causing eating disorders. Not fair, not true, not helpful.

Go ahead and bash some parents. I'll join you. But if you use the cause effect language we're not going to get along. Go ask the parents of kids with autism and schizophrenia if you need to ask why.


  1. Well put! Old myths and blame culture needing a final rest - dispelling the myths once and for all!

  2. Amen! Plus the assumptions get in the way of treating the patient. If you a good clinician you want to help your patient, not get in the way of treatment. Don't assume the stressed out, freaked out, parents in front of you are horrible. Focus on treatment of the patient.

  3. I largely agree with this, but I think it may be too sweeping. Taking your example of schizophrenia, parents certainly do not cause it, but family environments can help or hinder the course of the illness. That said, no one can draw a direct cause-effect relationship for a particular family - the causal relationships are based on studies of populations. But it does seem that there are certain (often fairly normal) traits in families that can worsen particular mental illnesses, and other traits that can be of benefit, and therapists might be able to help by addressing these issues and offering helpful strategies in a non-judgmental way. I imagine that it would be difficult to do this while avoiding language as innocent as "influences".

  4. Anonymous, I'm agreeing with you. The word influence is fine if we're talking about the course of the illness, but not cause. The same word, influence, can be correct or poisonous depending on its use. Frankly, most people don't make the distinction between the two and THAT is a problem.

    No one is endorsing or excusing chaotic, dysfunctional, damaging parenting and home environments - but unless we parse these things out we end up continuing to treat patients and their families without benefit of doubt. THAT cripples families in crisis, no matter what their strengths.

    If we're willing to use the same language about autism and schizophrenia and asthma here, I'm good.


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