In our series to help parents understand eating disorders, we take a look at how genes, personality, and experiences impact their development. This article is a great companion to the free eBook, What Kids Want Parents to Know About Eating Disorders. Please feel free to get a copy.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, then you have probably been told that eating disorders are “complicated.” So what does that mean, and why are eating disorders considered so complicated? More importantly, how can parents help? In this four-part series (this is Part 1 – check back for more later) we review the four elements that are linked to eating disorder development. These elements combine to create the complexity of eating disorders. They are:
In this article we’ll untangle the first element, genes, personality, and experiences. And we’ll take a look at how they impact and shape eating disorders. We’ll also provide some tips for parents who want to help their child recover. I encourage you to reflect on your child’s life history and think about how these aspects of their life and personality may have combined to encourage an eating disorder.
The individual personality traits and genetic factors linked to eating disorders
The seven major genetic, personality, and experience factors that impact eating disorders are:
- Sensitive temperament: highly sensitive to noise, taste, touch, and more
- Perfectionistic: strives to do well and be the best, critical, hates mistakes
- Adverse experiences: divorce, trauma, surgery, accident, and more
- Mental disorder: anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, ASD, and more
- Low self-worth: difficulty seeing self as valuable and worthy
- Genetics: inborn traits, a relative who has/had an eating disorder
- Marginalized identities: impacts of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.
As you probably know, parents cannot control whether and how their child recovers from an eating disorder. The only thing we can do is learn as much as possible and develop our own skills and self-knowledge so that we can help (not hurt) the process. By understanding how personality, genes, and experiences are linked to eating disorders, we can optimize our child’s chances of recovery.
1. Sensitive temperament: highly sensitive to noise, taste, touch, and more
Each person who has an eating disorder has a unique combination of factors that contribute to the disorder. For example, there is evidence that people who develop eating disorders tend to have highly sensitive personalities. This inborn temperament means they are more reactive to outside stimuli. Perhaps you have noticed they are quick to startle or hard to soothe. Maybe they refuse to wear “itchy” clothing or hate malls because they are too loud.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Consider how you can reduce stimulation, especially before, during, and after meals. Avoid pushing your child into environments that are highly stimulating. When you sense that your child is over-stimulated, help them regulate by soothing and calming them verbally, or just sit quietly next to them and take some deep breaths. If you can regulate your own nervous system, your child’s nervous system will automatically become more regulated.
2. Perfectionistic: strives to do well and be the best, critical, hates mistakes
It’s common to see perfectionistic tendencies in people who have eating disorders. For example, you may notice they hate to get a bad grade, miss a shot in soccer, or have a messy room. Perfectionistic qualities make someone highly self-critical and you may also notice they are also critical of others, especially their parents.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Help your child talk through their perfectionism. If you sense they are being self-critical, remind them that mistakes are absolutely OK. Avoid telling them what to do and how to do things, which can trigger perfectionism. Instead, focus on soothing their fear of mistakes. If they become critical of you, remind them that you make mistakes, and can always apologize for something if needed. But don’t apologize for the very fact that you make mistakes. Mistakes are normal, human, and healthy.
3. Adverse experiences: divorce, trauma, surgery, accidents, and more
Adverse experiences can take many forms, and they can create a foundation for eating disorders. It’s not the experience itself that is the problem – lots of people have adverse experiences and are fine. Adverse experiences become a problem when they aren’t managed and processed adequately.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Seek to define and understand your child’s adverse experiences. But don’t do this by asking them lots of questions, which could be triggering. Instead, recreate the event in your mind and consider how it might have felt for your child. Ask your child’s therapist to evaluate whether the event(s) may be impacting their eating disorder. If your child is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that will need to be treated in addition to the eating disorder.
4. Mental disorder: anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, ASD, and more
Eating disorders often co-exist with other mental disorders. These may or may not be diagnosed and treated. If your child has an eating disorder, it’s well worth considering whether they may have another disorder that could be interacting with their symptoms.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Recognize that many of these disorders are under-diagnosed and under-treated. If you suspect your child may have one of them, ask your child’s therapist whether there is anything they recommend. Meanwhile, keep a log of any events and behaviors that you feel may indicate that your child is on the spectrum for one of these other disorders. While your child’s current therapist may prioritize the eating disorder at this point in treatment, your notes may be helpful once the eating disorder symptoms are reduced.
5. Low self-worth: difficulty seeing self as valuable and worthy
Many people who have eating disorders struggle with self-worth. They do not see themselves as inherently worthy and pursue achievements and activity in an attempt to overcome what they see as a lack in themselves.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Find ways to reinforce the idea that your child is valuable and worthy of your love no matter what they do. This needs to be explicitly stated often and sincerely. For example, they are worthy regardless of their grades, their performance in sports, their body weight, how and what they eat, etc. Your child needs to know that you will love them even if they gain weight or eat “unhealthy” food. They will likely struggle with self-worth long after their eating disorder symptoms have reduced, so keep this up!
6. Genetics: inborn traits, typically a relative who has/had an eating disorder
There is evidence that there can be a genetic predisposition to eating disorders. This is most often identified when another family member also has/had an eating disorder.
⭐ Tips for Parents: Look back at your family tree and consider whether anyone in your family had or has an eating disorder or disordered eating. This may include an obvious case such as an aunt who was treated for Anorexia. But it could also include your brother who eats a very limited, rigid diet and exercises obsessively. Or your mother who was on one diet after another her whole life. Remember that your male relatives are almost as likely to have disordered eating and exercise patterns as your female relatives. Finally, consider your own relationship with eating and body image.
7. Marginalized identities
It’s important to note that there are special considerations for people who have marginalized identities based on race, gender identity, sexual identity, disability, (high) weight, etc. Someone who has a marginalized identity is at higher risk of eating disorders and also tends to have a hard time within the traditional eating disorder treatment paradigm, which is primarily oriented towards people who are white, thin, female, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.
⭐ Tips for Parents: If your child is in a marginalized identity, it is especially important that you pay attention to how their identity has shaped their experiences and personality. If at all possible, seek treatment that specifically identifies an understanding of your child’s marginalized identity.
Personality, genes, and experiences are all linked to eating disorders, and your child will need help understanding them to recover. Therefore, parents can help kids recover by becoming aware of how these factors combine within their child to create an eating-disorder-friendly environment. The more you understand them, the better able you will be to support your child through recovery.
If your child has an eating disorder, you may think they are the only one who needs help. But make no mistake: eating disorders impact the whole family. And parents can make a tremendous impact on recovery. So please get support to help you navigate this process. If at all possible, see a therapist or coach to help.
Books to Help
These books can help you understand your child’s personality and learn how to manage it more effectively during and beyond eating disorder recovery.
The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them, by Elaine N. Aron Ph.D
Explains the temperament most often associated with eating disorders.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.