The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

The Role of The Family in Eating Disorders

“It’s all my fault.”

“I must have been too strict – I pushed her too hard.”

“Maybe if I hadn’t _____________, this would not have happened?”

Do any of these statements sound familiar?  If they do, you are not alone.  Parents of children with eating disorders often wonder if they said or did something that may have caused their child to develop the eating disorder.  Many times, this can lead to considerable guilt and frustration in parents who wonder, if they had just done something differently, maybe the eating disorder wouldn’t have surfaced in their child.  The Academy of Eating Disorders (AED) recently released a position paper that clarifies the role of the family in the acquisition and treatment of eating disorders and addresses many of the concerns expressed above.  

Most importantly, this position paper points out that there is no data to support the idea that anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) are caused by a certain type of family dynamic, parenting style or “anorexigenic” family system.  However, there IS strong evidence that family based treatment for younger patients, implemented early on in their illness, leads to positive results and improvements in conjunction with professionally guided family intervention.  

In its position statement, the Academy conveys what we already know  – just how important families are for the healthy development of a child.  When that developmental process is interrupted for any number of reasons the first line of defense against lasting negative effects should be the child’s family.  The case of a child or adolescent with an eating disorder is no exception; the Academy recommends and endorses that families be included in the treatment of younger patients with eating disorders.

In the 1970’s, research and work at the Maudsley Hospital in London began to reshape the way families were seen and included them as part of the treatment team for their child with AN. There was a shift away from blaming the family in some way for the child’s illness, to looking at how to empower the family in the processes of healing their child.  This current model for the treatment of AN and BN is an educational, supportive model that teaches and supports the emotional language of family, helping them learn to communicate and navigate through the conflicts and differences of opinion that arise during treatment and in normal adolescent development.

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt supports the position of the AED and provides family based treatment for individuals and their families who could benefit from this approach.  We agree that families can be the child’s strongest resource in the road to recovery.   

If you are the parent of a child or adolescent with an eating disorder and would like to find out more about outpatient family based treatment options, please call (410) 938-5252.

 The Academy for Eating Disorders is a global professional association committed to leadership in eating disorders research, education, treatment, and prevention.  Read the complete AED position paper here: The Role of the Family in Eating Disorders

Written and submitted by Debbi Jacobs, LCSW-C,  outpatient family therapist at The Center for Eating Disorders.

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