Lots of parents ask: if I have an eating disorder and my child does too, are we doomed? Parents who have eating disorders hope and pray that they don’t pass it along to their child. But, all too often, eating disorders become an unfortunate family heritage.
“I spent most of my adult life trying to control my latent eating disorder,” said one mom. “And then when my 11-year-old daughter developed one, I knew exactly where it came from.”
This mom really tried not to pass along her eating disorder. And, like so many others, she is devastated to see her own disorder in her child.
Are eating disorders genetic?
There is definitely some form of heredity for eating disorders. They are frequently observed in families to varying degrees.
Mom might be an extreme dieter but not claim an eating disorder, and then her son develops anorexia. Dad frequently binge eats, and then his daughter develops bulimia. Or it could go the other way. Mom was hospitalized for anorexia several times, and her daughter weight cycles and goes on and off extreme diets.
Science can’t identify a specific genetic marker for eating disorders. But we can see that eating behaviors are easily inherited. Family traits may include a fear of getting fat. Or maybe a tendency to reach for food rather than face feelings. Food and eating is an integral part of parenting. So it makes sense that we pass habits and beliefs (including good ones!) to our kids.
Parents who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder
Eating disorders are not as uncommon as we think they are. In fact, an estimated 10% of Americans have eating disorders. If you have a PTA meeting with 20 parents, two people in the room may have/had an eating disorder.
Did you go through formal eating disorder treatment? If so, you know how hard it is to recover. An eating disorder is a mental health condition that is centered on the body and food. In our society, bodies are under tremendous pressure. Meanwhile, food is either “super” or “junk.” A fear of fat and food makes a lot of sense.
Eating disorders are notoriously hard to treat. So even if you went through a formal program, you may remain in a semi-recovered state. While your worst symptoms may be under control, you are still suffering.
Or maybe you know that your eating disorder is still raging. You just haven’t been able to spend the time getting better. It’s a lot of effort, and maybe you have just resigned yourself to having an eating disorder. That is certainly everyone’s choice. But it can get harder to do this if your child is diagnosed and you want them to recover.
Parents who may have a “problem” but not a diagnosis
Eating disorders are chronically under-diagnosed. It’s easy to imagine that for every person who is diagnosed, there’s someone who is not. These people may not have life-threatening symptoms, but they know that eating and body image are an issue. Their eating disorders fly under the radar.
This would move the PTA meeting from having 2 people who have eating disorders to 4.
And then there are the millions of people who live with “disordered eating.” This is a disordered relationship with eating without a full-blown eating disorder.
Some parents may not even realize that their lifestyle, which they believe is necessary and healthy, is actually disordered eating. Most weight loss and weight control efforts easily fit the criteria for disordered eating.
In fact, many parents suffer from at least a few eating disorder symptoms. This is the result of the fact that weight loss and weight control efforts have been heavily promoted in our culture. They persist despite the fact that they are very harmful to our physical and mental health.
A child’s diagnosis leads to a parents’ diagnosis
As you learn more about your child’s eating disorder, you may start to notice that you have many symptoms of an eating disorder, too. This doesn’t mean you are the cause of your child’s eating disorder. Nor does it mean you are irreparably damaged.
Just as we need to adjust our thoughts about what an eating disorder is, we can also adjust our thoughts about the outcomes of an eating disorder. And the truth is that while they are not easy to overcome, most eating disorders can be overcome if the right conditions are met.
A full recovery from an eating disorder is possible not only for yourself, but for your child, too.
It’s natural to want to start with your child’s treatment. And that makes sense. Parents tend to want to put their children first.
But when it comes to eating disorders, you want to work on your eating disorder symptoms as soon as possible. In fact, treating your own eating disorder may make all the difference in helping your child recover from their eating disorder.
Why parents need to recover from their eating disorders
Eating disorders are as much about the environment we live in as they are about biological factors. We may be born with a temperamental predisposition towards anxiety and depression. On such a foundation, an eating disorder can take hold. But not everyone who has anxiety and depression develops an eating disorder. The variation appears to be based, at least in part, on the environment in which we live.
If you are living with eating disorder symptoms, then your child may be, by default, living in an environment that is supporting eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Parents have tremendous power to support a child’s recovery by pursuing recovery for themselves.
How parents can recover from an eating disorder
You may feel completely stretched and as if you can’t possibly treat your own eating disorder symptoms while you are pursuing your child’s health. But this is not an either/or situation. Both of you must get treatment, and your healing will most likely accelerate your child’s recovery.
Recovery from an eating disorder doesn’t need to take over your life or cost a ton of money. Here are some steps an adult can take to recover from an eating disorder:
1. Learn about Health at Every Size
It is virtually impossible to fully recover from an eating disorder without dropping our weight bias. Basically, if we have lived our whole lives believing that we need to lose weight or maintain a certain weight, we need to open our eyes to the fallacy and futility of this pursuit. Health at Every Size has been proven to lead to better health than any weight loss efforts. Start by reading the book Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
2. Learn about Intuitive Eating
Eating disorder recovery requires a natural and peaceful relationship with food. Intuitive Eating is a practice that opens up food barriers and teaches you to listen to your body rather than follow food rules or diet programs. Intuitive Eating has been proven to lead to better health than any weight loss efforts. Start by reading the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
3. Understand Eating Disorders
It can help to understand the many reasons we develop eating disorders, which go way beyond dieting, eating, and weight. Understanding the emotional drivers of eating disorders can be very helpful in healing. If you are female, start by reading the book Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling, by Anita Johnston
4. Get Therapy or Coaching
It’s a good idea to engage a therapist or coach to help you work through recovery. Therapy and coaching can be expensive, but also very effective. If you have had an eating disorder for a long time, you will benefit from professional support. Be sure to find a professional who is non-diet, weight-neutral, and follows a Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating paradigm. Our professional directory offers a starting point.
As you heal your own relationship with your body and eating, you will notice that your attitudes about bodies, food, and eating will become lighter and less fraught. Your child will benefit from your recovery both in the environment you create and your ability to understand the work they are doing to recover from their own eating disorder.
We all take our own paths to recovery, so don’t worry if this takes time, or if you struggle with recovery. While the resources above are a great starting point, you are on your own journey, and there is nothing wrong with going at your own pace.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.