Parents pass many things down to their children—unconditional love, life lessons and family heirlooms. Even key personality traits, such as ¬perfectionism, introversion and anxiousness, have been found to be genetically linked. Unfortunately, medical conditions and mental illnesses are also passed down from generation to generation, including eating disorders.
Because research has identified a genetic component in the development of an eating disorder, some parents mistakenly believe they are to blame if their child struggles with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Additionally, when parents believe their child’s eating disorder is their fault, they can tend to shoulder the burden of “fixing” their child.
“As humans, we look for cause and effect—it’s natural,” explains Brittany Lacour, LCSW, DAACS, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center. “However, when it comes to an illness, especially a multifaceted illness like an eating disorder, that has genetic, psychological and social roots, this can lead to finger pointing.”
In eating disorders treatment, finger pointing is not effective for anyone when a loved one – child or adult – is struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex illnesses with several contributing factors; they are no one’s fault. Eating disorders professionals, patients and families should avoiding playing the “blame game.” Instead, asking questions such as, “Will this action or line of thinking be helpful to my loved one’s recovery and my own well-being?” Or, “Am I acting from a place of discomfort and fear, or from a place of hope and openness?” can help frame thoughts and actions that support eating disorders recovery.
Instead of placing blame when it comes to children with eating disorders, all parties involved in treatment should focus on the maintaining factors. Concentrate on what is keeping the illness going and what purpose it is serving for the young patient, as opposed to fixating on the origin of an eating disorder. The reality is that time only moves in one direction, and getting stuck in the past only serves the illness and the feelings of helplessness that can emerge as a result. Parents and families should look at the current dynamics of their relationship with their loved one and work with treatment professionals to identify the function the eating disorder is serving for their loved one within the family. This involves actively listening to one another and not getting caught up in an “objective reality battle,” or arguments over whose perceptions are more “true.”
Another natural human inclination is that we attempt to place blame when we have uncomfortable feelings about a situation, especially when people we love are in danger. Instead of finger pointing, parents and family members should be thoughtful and shift the focus to expanding their emotional vocabulary to better explain how the experience of having a child with an eating disorder makes them feel. Eating disorders treatment professionals – including psychiatrists, therapists and dietitians – can be especially helpful in facilitating these conversations, providing a safe outlet to express and explore feelings of sadness, frustration and guilt and helping to identify strategies to move forward and support their loved one as they work toward recovery.
Families do not cause eating disorders, but they play a very important role in eating disorders treatment and recovery, regardless of the age of the patient.
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