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Parents Do Not Cause Eating Disorders Position Statement

Parents Do Not Cause Eating Disorders: Families Are Important Allies During Treatment


Despite all that has been learned in the past decade that dispels old ideas about eating disorders, a lingering history of blaming parents still exists. This assumption, sometimes stated and other times just implied, harms families and recoveries. At a time when families are most needed, this implication of guilt can disable a parent from taking assertive and life-saving action.

F.E.A.S.T., an organization committed to evidence-based care and parent empowerment, calls on the treatment community and society to put a true end to the era of parent blame. Freed of this burden parents can, when professionally supported and coached, be powerful allies during treatment.

  • Eating disorders are brain disorders, not a choice or a sign of poor parenting.
  • Theories of parent causation are often based on now-outdated ideas of the illness.
  • Correlation has been confused with causation for symptoms that are often genetically transmitted.
  • The risk of developing an eating disorder is 50-80% genetic.
  • The presence of an eating disorder or other mental illness in a family can by itself cause temporary dysfunctional reactions and interactions.
  • Eating disorder patients come from every type of family, just as the general population does.
  • There is no evidence to support eating disorder treatment that is based on repairing dysfunctional families.
  • Care-giving families need active assistance and reassurance to do their job well.
  • Eating disorder patients often suffer from temporary deficits that may distort memory and perception of family.
  • Evidence-based treatment of eating disorders indicates that family empowerment and involvement is one of the most powerful tools for early intervention and improved outcomes.
  • While parents do not cause eating disorders, they can be an active part of recovery.

While lingering concerns about parent pathology live on in some treatment practices and literature, we point to the following sources:

NEDA would like to send the clear message that families are NOT responsible for eating disorders.”  The National Eating Disorders Association, US, January 2007
“No evidence exists to prove that families cause eating disorders.” Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, Third Edition, APA Practice Guidelines,  May 2006
“FAMILIES DO NOT CAUSE ANOREXIA NERVOSA” Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa collaboration, January 7, 2007

“For a long time the mothers have been blamed, or families have been blamed, and that’s been pitiful.” Lynn Grefe, National Eating Disorders Association, US.

“This is a brain disorder.” Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

“I think traditionally, and not just traditionally I think today still a lot of providers would not see the parents as part of the solution but as part of the problem and I think that’s been a pervasive attitude among a large number of clinicians in our field.” Dr. Daniel le Grange, University of Chicago, US.

“Parents often have this guilt, assuming that because they were the person in charge of their offspring they may have done something wrong, but there’s no evidence for that, whatsoever.” Dr. Janet Treasure, Maudsley Hospital, UK.

“There are no data to support at this point that parents cause eating disorders.” Lucene Wisniewski, Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, US.

“Parents don’t cause eating disorders.” Jeanine Cogan, Eating Disorders Coalition, US

“Parents don’t cause eating disorder.” Professor Ivan Eisler, Kings College, London, UK

“What parents need to know is: eating disorders are biologically based illnesses. They didn’t cause it. They need to let go of that guilt.”   Kitty Westin, The Emily Program, US

“Parents do not cause eating disorders. Parents suffer just as much as their kids do.” Dr. Walter Kaye, University of California at San Diego, US.

From “Do Parents Cause Eating Disorders” video interviews of eating disorder experts, October 2007