Parents do not cause eating disorders

"Parents Do Not Cause Eating Disorders"

It is time to say that. With confidence, calm, and purpose. Without apology.

It is time to hear that. For those parents who are suffering from guilt, shame, and hesitation. For those who might still harbor that bias.

It is time to act on that. By empowering parents to take action - to seek excellent care, to be involved and well-informed.

You didn't cause this, but you can act. We are not perfect, but how you respond to this illness will no doubt teach you more about how strong you can be than about regrets. Children of all ages need their families to be the best they can be during crisis, and this illness is a crisis. We need to celebrate the positive role parents can, and should, take to help heal and protect our children.

Parents make mistakes, and some make grave mistakes. There is much we as parents could do better, and harm we can cause. I'm certainly not making excuses for parents, nor do I believe we don't contribute to our children's self-esteem, body image, and eating - we do. But the mental illness of an eating disorder does not, in itself, say anything about our actions or inaction. Our responsibility is to face any issues in our families that get in the way of recovery, any illnesses we may have that complicate recovery, any attitudes that may confuse our recovering children. This is different than blame, and doesn't imply cause.

Need a shot in the arm? Read the new F.E.A.S.T. position statement published last night, and read quotes from leading voices in the eating disorder world - and add your own:

Parents Do Not Cause Eating Disorders: Families are important allies during treatment


  1. BRAVO!!!!
    I just returned from the NEDA conference in Minneapolis and much of the program was dedicated to preventing disordered eating. This is an important topic but this is not NDEA is it? My concern is that if the professionals aren’t differentiating DE’s and ED’s how will patients/families/insurance companies. I hope professionals can begin to look at ED’S as a neuro-biological illness along a spectrum which includes AN, BN, and clusters of combinations of these symptoms thus eliminating the basket term of EDNOS. In addition, the professionals need to separate the neuro-biological illness from the cultural/situational issues that create disordered eating. Additionally, if disordered eating is addressed, I hope they will begin to include sleep deprivation, and social/academic pressures etc. in their prevention training.
    When you have experienced an ED personally or with a family member, you KNOW IT WHEN YOU SEE IT! I encourage professionals to look for underlying factors in the patients' personal/developmental history (phobias/anxiety/depression etc.) and in family history (phobias/anxiety/depression/OCD/alcoholism etc.) to begin to explore the possibility of a neuro-biological basis for the presenting symptoms. We have the technology to diagnose these brain disorders. However, the cost precludes the use of these tests for so many sufferers with eating issues. If we could narrow the field by excluding DE’S maybe we could improve the diagnosis and treatment for those with ED’s.

  2. I SO agree - disordered eating must be parsed from eating disorders if we are to understand either one.

    Now, don't forget to go sign the statment!!

  3. When our daughter suffered from anorexia, all attempts to cure her by changing family dynamics failed miserably. And much harm was done. When the treatment team, including our family, however, finally let go of the idea that the parents and family were causal, and focused instead on refeeding her and directly altering her eating disordered behavior, she recovered and now, two years later, is fully recovered and living a healthy life.
    Our family's experience is not unique. In fact, the strongest scientific evidence supports the approach we eventually used.
    Consequently, if I as parent were to start the process all over again, the first question I would ask a treatment provider is whether he or she believes the family caused the illness. If the answer is yes, or even maybe, I would go elsewhere as fast as possible.

  4. Way to go Laura & F.E.A.S.T. Team, this is empowerment in action. I am working with the family right now that has a young adult child in residential treatment. They are being given the cold shoulder, treated and being told that they are over-controlling parents and need to back down. Meanwhile, they are doing everything that they have been coaching by myself to do in order to effectively combat ED and promote recovery. There needs to be a clear and concise message sent to E.D., parents, patients, providers, all alike that "Parents don't cause eating disorders, blame is ineffective, and parents and family need to be part of the solution and take a pro-active role in treatment and recovery" point blank. Thank you for getting the ball rolling. I did sign the form too! Stephanie

  5. Being put on diets starting at the age of 9, having everything I ate scrutinized and commented on, having endless comments made about my weight and appearance, and "do you really want that?" and "you'd be so pretty if you just lost a few pounds" ringing in my ears for years on end...?

    Sure, that had nothing at all to do with my years as a bulimic.

    Some parents may not cause eating disorders, but I am not ready to let my weight-obsessed mother off the hook for the damage she did to me, thank you very much.

  6. My mother MOST DEFINITELY is the cause of my eating disorder. I will be very angry if anyone tells her she needs to feel no guilt. The woman to this date does not feel any guilt, or acknowledge my anorexia. In fact, she thinks I can still stand to lose a few pounds when I am clearly underweight. Just last month she reminded me I cannot be considered "thin". At most I am "normal", but I am definitely not thin enough to be called skinny.

    I wear size 0's.

    She classified me as extremely obese since the age of three, and has kept me on a diet throughout childhood. I have never been "thin" in her mind. She constantly reminds me how disgustingly fat I am, and that I need to eat less and go on a diet. I most definitely did not deserve that extra cookie, forget that everyone else in the family are thin enough to have them, I am too fat!

    How dare you, with one broad brush, try to make all parents feel guilt free?

    If a parent was the direct cause of an eating disorder, they need to be held accountable for their sick, disgusting behaviors and parenting techniques.

  7. Here I am, trying to recover, spending thousands on my therapy out of my own pocket, and I am STILL constantly reminded by my mother how extremely fat I am and I really need to lose more weight. So many girls are skinnier than me and I am fat.

    You tell me that is not a direct trigger of my anorexia.

    I am trying to recover, and I hear this negative voice day in and day out, and the source lives with me uninvited. Every time I am caught preparing dinner in my own kitchen I feel she is watching me to see how much I eat. I close the door to the kitchen just so she can't see me eating, and when she opens the door I feel immense guilt for daring to touch food when I am fat.

    Sure, parents don't cause eating disorders. Let my mother off the hook. I am solely responsible for my illness. I was the fat, obese failure. Why should I blame anyone else.

  8. Julia and Sushi,

    I'm truly not disagreeing with you. No child should ever experience these things.

    When I say that parents don't cause eating disorders I'm talking about eating disorders as a severe mental illness, a brain disorder. They are neither the fault of the patient nor the family.

    Parents CAN cause psychological damage, abuse, neglect, and permanently harm children. No one is letting them 'off the hook' for this, or saying a person does not need and deserve help and healing. Abuse is unacceptable, and no child should suffer a parent's disapproval of weight or eating behaviors - PERIOD.

    Here's a way to look at this: separate the issues. People who are abused or hurt by their parents who do not develop a mental illness - does that mean they were any less abused? Any less in need of help?

    Parents need to be stopped from these behaviors because they are WRONG and HURT - not because of eating disorders.

    And those with eating disorders should not be assumed to have suffered these trespasses from their loved ones.

    I should also add: eating disorders are genetically related - what you are both describing could be a sign that your mothers, too, suffered from this mental illness.

    I'm wishing you both healing and recovery.

  9. Saying "parents cause eating disorders" or "parents do not cause eating disorders" is too broad. First off, just because people's symptoms are the same does not mean the causes of their issue are the same. One person's ED may have very little to do with his/her parents, while another's may have a lot to do with his/her parents. Just as 5 different people can have a headache caused by 5 different sets of conditions, different ED sufferers arrive at the condition from different paths.

    Secondly, humans are too complex to say that an issue like ED is caused or not caused by one thing. As was mentioned earlier, some people have terrible parents, yet their children do not develop ED. This means that parenting alone, no matter how detrimental, is not the only cause. A complex mixture of things is necessary. This mixture is different for each person.

    In some 'mixtures' detrimental parenting is a primary ingredient. In others it is very minor or not an ingredient at all.

    There are undoubtedly parents out there who feel guilt. For them, I don't have an easy answer. Is it possible that they contributed to the problem unconsciously? yes, it is. Is it certain that they contributed? No, it's not. Even if they did contribute, does that make them bad people? No. If things need improving, get professional help to improve them. What's even more dangerous than guilt is searching for a way to easily absolve it without honestly facing the parenting changes that could help improve the situation.

  10. I feel parents DO cause eating disorders in SOME cases. The child may have the brain chemistry that makes her predisposed to devoloping an eating disorder, but that doesn't necessarily mean she will develop one if she is surrounded with love and taught healthy habits. However, when parents teach poor eating habits and then make fun pf their chubby child, of course the child is going to develip an eating disorder! I think this page was written by a parent who doesn't want to accept responsibility for his actions. My parents are the same way!


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