If Parents Cause Eating Disorders Then How the F@#k Did I Get One? 2


The short answer to that is: “Because they don’t”. Parents cannot, do not, cause eating disorders.

Many people think that they do. I blame the psychoanalysts for this somewhat. Lets have a look at something Vanderbilt University Psychology Dept have to Say:

In a review article on anorexia and family issues, Yager describes how anecdotal reports of child-parent interactions and personality styles of parents show a great deal of variability. The relationships between mothers and daughters are reported by some to be rejecting and by others to be ambivalent or over involved.

Great. Mothers are either neglectful or overbearing; a lose/ lose situation. Thank goodness I do not want to have children! Heaven forbid that I might have a life of my own and be considered “rejecting”, or even worse be friends with my child and therefore “over-involved”.

There is more:

Although these mother-child interactions are contradictory, several general themes are present (Blinder, Chaitin & Goldstein, 1988). Anorexic mothers tend to focus all of their attention on the well-being of their children (Minuchin, Rosman & Baker, 1978). They set high expectations and foster ambitions for external achievement. The mothers of anorexics may be involved socially, they usually lack intimate friends. In many cases, the daughter becomes the mother’s confidant. This overinvolvement creates separation Psych1difficulty later in life (Blinder, Chaitin & Goldstein, 1988). 

Oh please. Really?! Talk about sweeping generalizations! Well, just for your information Vanderbilt, my mother has plenty of her own friends, and she never, ever, pressed me to overachieve.

Thankfully, not all psychoanalysts think that mothers are to blame for anorexia, some believe that it is all about sex. Take this abstract from Anorexia nervosa: a psychoanalytic commentary:

Anorexia nervosa is an expression of ego-defective development arising from varying degrees of failure to resolve the process of developing a sense of individuality.

Wait, are you calling me a failure? No, I see, you are saying that I failed to come to terms with my individuality. Or… maybe it’s that I am a failure for wanting to have individuality. Or…maybe by ego is a failure. Or…. maybe it is complete codswallop!

There is more:

There result primitive aggression, archaic guilt, and great difficulties in establishing an integrated sense of sexual identity.

That part makes me sound more like a serial killer. Are we sure this is still about eating disorders?!

There is more:

Sexualization of all aspects of interpersonal relationships is fostered by intensification of the need for sensory stimulation, e.g., by touch, the fantasy of touch, by vision, and by oral fantasies and activities. This leads to intensification of defenses against overt sexual expression on all levels, as well as against primitive aggressive fantasies and guilt. The symbolic significance of various symptoms in anorexia nervosa is discussed.

Thankfully, this rubbish has been widely discredited and the biological basis of such disorders accepted, however, there are still a number of doctors and well-meaning professionals who perpetuate such myths; these are the type of people who know just enough about eating disorders to be dangerous, but not enough to be helpful.

Not all psychoanalysts blame parents or sex. Some, such as the author of Lost for Words: The Psychoanalysis of Anorexia and Bulimia, blame words:

They have not found the words to express and name the turmoil of their experience to themselves or others. This leaves them in a world where neither food nor words can provide nourishment and sustenance.

I, personally, have never been lacking in things to say. Oh the irony.

Let us get one thing straight: there are bad parents. There are parents who should never of had children. There are parents who abuse. There are parents who neglect. If it were true that parents could cause eating disorders however, every child who had suffered a bad parent would have developed anorexia or something similar.

Lets get another thing straight: eating disorders are not a chosen line of defense; they are not a subconscious rebellion, and above all else, they are not something that the suffer is doing.

The most frustrating question I was often asked when I had anorexia, without a shadow of a doubt, was:

“Why are you doing this to yourself?”

Can you imagine asking a person with cancer why they had chosen to develop the disease? Why they were doing cancer to themselves?!

I was not doing anything. I had an illness. Eating disorders are not chosen. They are not a reaction to a bad parent, or a trauma, or coping mechanism any more than cancer is. Anorexia is a biological brain-based illness. If my parents had any part to play in my development of the disease, it happened at conception when they played their part in coding me.

I'm afraid that you have tested positive for lung cancer Mr Jones, but before we start treatment, let us first seek the answer to the question:"Why have you given yourself cancer?"

I’m afraid that you have tested positive for lung cancer Mr Jones, but before we start treatment, let us first seek the answer to the question:”Why have you given yourself cancer?”

I obviously think that this is a rather serious distinction. Here is a real-life (mine) example of why:

There was a time at university when I was drastically underweight and in serious danger. My doctor, who had obviously read too much Freud or Jung, fancied that he “understood” my illness. He would poke and pry into my home life; asking questions about my upbringing and coyly fishing for some indication of trauma or abuse. One day I went to see him because I had been feeling faint and having heart palpitations, which considering my state of malnourishment, was hardly surprising. He brushed aside my explanation of my physical symptoms and instead, started asking me about my parents:

“Do you remember much about your childhood?”, he gently enquired, “You know… how were things when you were young?”

“Well…” I hedged. “I remember the dark room…”

His eyes lit up; “Go on…” he urged.

“I remember the dark room that mummy and daddy used to lock me in for days on end without food or water. I liked being in the dark room, because when they let me out they used to beat me with a chicken drumstick and rub coal in my face.”

“Really?” He could not hide his excitement. 

“No not really!” I threw my hands in the air and glared at him in disbelief. “What the hell  do you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you that my mother could not have possibly been more loving? Do you want me to tell you about all the weekends that my dedicated father spent trailering me and my pony to Pony Club events just because I loved to ride so much? Or about  how my parents did everything in their means to give all of us kids the best childhood possible?”

After that little outburst, I got up, and I walked out.

I did not go back to that doctor after that. In fact, I gave up on doctors altogether.

Because I gave up on doctors altogether, I did not receive treatment.

Because I did not receive treatment I suffered from anorexia for almost ten years and could have died from it.

So, with that in mind, forgive me if I get a little snarky when someone tries to psychoanalyze a biological illness; stop wasting my time and start getting real!  

Besides, if parents cause eating disorders than I should have been immune. My parents are a pair of the most wonderful people that I know. How many people can say that? I know I have been exceedingly lucky with my family lot; luckier than most I think.

I can see why it is tempting to blame one’s parents for an eating disorder if one has had an abusive childhood. If my parents had been neglectful, that psychoanalysis-wannabe doctor would probably have convinced me that we had found my “reason” for “doing this to myself”. Then, when people asked me why I was doing anorexia to myself I would have had an answer. It would have been the wrong answer, incorrect, but it might have felt nice to have something to say. I can see the appeal. 

I can also see the correlation between eating disorders and dysfunctional families. Most people who have an eating disorder also have a dysfunctional family. Guess why that is? That is because if scrutinized, all families are dysfunctional in some way! Mine is especially dysfunctional because we show affection via banter, swear a lot, share an utterly inappropriate sense of humor, and laugh at things that should not be funny.

Back to the point:

The general public needs education on eating disorders and what they really are, but educating medical professionals is even more important. We cannot have doctors treating trauma in lieu of referring a person with an eating disorder to a results-based, proven, form of treatment such as FBT or an impatient clinic (see F.E.A.S.T for more details). Eating disorders are treatable, but every day that the myth that these are diseases caused by parents prevails, another sufferer could be directed towards the wrong form of treatment; and that could be deadly. 

This is my mum with her three daughters. She is, and always was, perfect.

This is my mum with her three daughters. She is, and always was, perfect.

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


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2 thoughts on “If Parents Cause Eating Disorders Then How the F@#k Did I Get One?

  • Becky Henry

    Thank you Tabitha…I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this! I might even (one day when we’ve finally gotten all the health professionals educated about eating disorders) print this out and mail it to all the therapists who wasted precious time, money and our sanity dragging my daughter down hurtful rabbit holes of childhood traumas…

    I love that you told that untrained (and unscrupulous) doctor about a made up dark room! That is hysterical! I love the reaction!

    I’m sorry the system failed you too and I’m so glad you are no longer sick! You give hope.

    All the best,
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, LLC