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Parents Do Not Cause Eating Disorders

This statement may seem obvious, but it is the sad history of eating disorder treatment that parents are sometimes still blamed or feel blamed when a loved one develops an eating disorder. This crippling and discredited thinking was also once the case for other illnesses that we now understand are neither given nor chosen, like asthma, stuttering, autism, and schizophrenia. For those families suffering from guilt, from feeling blamed, or unsure of who to believe on this topic, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Genetic factors play a significant role in the development of eating disorders.
  • The exact reasons for these disorders are not fully understood
  • There is no evidence that parenting style or actions cause eating disorders
  • Blame is a barrier to early and effective treatment
  • Guilt can prevent a parent from taking action
  • Families are ideally placed to be powerful allies during the recovery process

Words that can blame:

“contribute to”     “influence”     “trigger”      “can prevent”     “relational trauma”      “inadvertent”    “don’t mean to”    “not intentional, but”   “multifactorial”   “should not be blamed, BUT”  “play a role, along with”    “attachment issues”     “enmeshed”      “dysfunctional”      “should not be considered primary causes”

Words that can educate:

  “do not cause”      “can be greatest supporters”     “are important to recovery”  “have been unfairly blamed and excluded”   “valued part of overall treatment plan”    “treatment allies, along with siblings and extended family”

Parents do not cause eating disorders …. but we are definitely needed as part of the solution.

What about abusive parents?

The F.E.A.S.T. community does not excuse or deny that child abuse and neglect and harmful parenting exists, and causes harm. Those with mental illness are especially vulnerable to neglect and abuse, and those with an eating disorder predisposition are at special risk of harm when their parents promote disordered eating, exercise, and negative body image. No one should have to endure these harmful and dangerous influences.

Although we do not believe parents “cause” eating disorders we believe all parents should promote positive body image, a wholesome family food culture, and acceptance of diverse body size and shape. Child abuse and neglect should never be ignored or discounted. If changes need to be made in a family to promote recovery and life beyond recovery, this is part of the work the family does together.

Children need supportive, mature, stable, and loving families.

Our community knows well how learning that one’s beloved son or daughter is suffering from an eating disorder can bring on enormous feelings of guilt and responsibility. We hope parents will feel the relief of knowing they did not cause this deadly brain disorder and that this will enable them to do the very challenging work of supporting their loved one to recovery and on with their lives. Not causing the disorder does not mean we do not regret decisions and actions that may have encouraged dieting, over-exercise, or other disordered behaviors and ideas. But once we know how harmful these things are, and understand the nature of eating disorders, we can undertake the work to be the best supporters for recovery.

Guilt and blame are distractions from the work of supporting recovery.

The history of blaming parents for mental illness has caused great harm to ill people and their families. Freeing parents up to do what we CAN do, to learn what we need to learn, make changes when necessary,  to pursue and engage with effective treatment: these are why it is necessary to set aside guilt and blame.