How family dynamics impact eating disorder development

How family dynamics impact eating disorder development

In our series to help parents understand eating disorders, we take a look at how family dynamics impact eating disorder 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 2) we review the four elements that are linked to eating disorder development. These elements combine to create the complexity of eating disorders. They are:

  1. Genes, Personality & Experiences
  2. Family Dynamics
  3. Societal Norms & Beliefs
  4. Eating Disorder Diagnosis

In this article we’ll untangle the second element, family dynamics. 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 own family dynamics and think about how they may have contributed to your child’s eating disorder. This is absolutely not coming from a place of blame, but in pursuit of understanding.

The family dynamics linked to eating disorder development

The five major family dynamics that are associated with eating disorder development are:

  1. Low emotional literacy: don’t talk about feelings and emotions
  2. Conflict avoidance: ignore or avoid difficult conversations, walk on eggshells
  3. Poor boundaries: have trouble setting and maintaining clear interpersonal boundaries; the child may over- or under-perform for the sake of the parent
  4. Rigid and controlling: parent demands discipline and respect
  5. Chaotic: there is little structure and parent has low authority in the home

This cannot be overstated: parents are not ever responsible for a child’s eating disorder. It’s important to note that there are four major factors that appear to contribute to eating disorder development, and family dynamics are just one. Parents are neither responsible for eating disorder development nor in control of recovery. But they can make a significant impact on a child’s chances of recovery if they work to improve family dynamics and optimize the healing environment.

1. Low emotional literacy: don’t talk about feelings and emotions

There is evidence that families that have low emotional literacy or don’t talk about feelings and emotions may be more likely to have a child with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often viewed as emotional coping mechanisms that a child adopts in order to process feelings and emotions.

Tips for Parents: Build your family’s emotional literacy. This means intentionally talking about how you feel. It will take practice and consistency to build up your vocabulary and comfort with emotions. Start by trying to describe and truly feel your own feelings at least once per day. Use words beyond just sad, mad, afraid, or happy. Next, ask your kid(s) how they feel. Ask them to describe and sit with their feeling. Make this a daily practice and it will become easier and more natural.

2. Conflict avoidance: ignore or avoid difficult conversations, walk on eggshells

Conflict avoidance is commonly associated with family dynamics that may encourage eating disorder development. This is a way for the family to avoid talking about feelings and emotions by avoiding them entirely.

Tips for Parents: Start by noticing when you avoid conflict. Do you feel irritated when your partner loads the dishwasher, but instead of saying something, you just fix it? Pay attention to how many times during the day you have a feeling or opinion and shove it down to keep the peace. Next, start to clearly and calmly tell people how you feel. In the dishwasher example, you could say, “John, it would mean a lot to me if you would load the dishwasher like this.” Similarly, if you suspect your partner is upset with you about something, say “John, it seems like you’re frustrated about something. Can we talk about it?” The more you address conflict directly, the fewer eggshells will exist in your home. And if you start with yourself, the results will feel organic and are less likely to be resisted by your child(ren)

3. Poor boundaries: have trouble setting and maintaining clear interpersonal boundaries; the child may over- or under-perform for the sake of the parent

Families that have poor boundaries may raise kids who either over- or under-perform for the sake of the parent. These children may be “parentified” in that they feel they need to take on a parental role. Or they may be enmeshed with the parent and have trouble knowing where they end and the parent begins.

Clear interpersonal boundaries arise when each person in the family feels both strong as an individual and linked to the group. But in many family systems, boundaries become blurred. This is often because the parent(s) did not grow up in families that had good boundaries. Family patterns, especially dysfunctional ones, get passed down unless they are intentionally interrupted.

Tips for Parents: Work with a therapist or coach who can help you learn healthy boundaries. This will improve your life in every aspect, and will benefit everyone in your family. As you learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries, your child who has an eating disorder will feel released from significant pressure they may have been feeling in the relationship.

4. Rigid and controlling: parent demands discipline and respect

There are two completely different parenting styles often associated with eating disorders. On the one end are rigid and controlling parents who demand discipline and respect from their children. These parents believe that children should conform to the parents’ will. They tend to minimize, ignore, or be unaware of the child’s needs.

A rigid and controlling parent tends to make children feel they don’t have a voice. As a result, they will often rebel by using dangerous behaviors. One of the greatest rebellions for children of all ages is eating or not eating to show displeasure. Feeding our children is the very first thing we do for them, and hunger is their first impetus for communication. So when a child has an eating disorder, it may be a sign that they have something to say to a parent.

Tips for Parents: Take a deep look at how you may be trying to control your child. Now take steps to stop trying to control your child through criticism and restriction. Get help, since this will be a major adjustment for you.

5. Chaotic: there is little structure and the parent has low authority in the home

On the opposite side of the spectrum are parents who tend to be chaotic. These parents impose little structure and feel they have no control over their children. The challenge is that when a parent has low authority the child feels unsafe and insecure.

Tips for Parents: If you feel your children control you or you just don’t have the energy or interest in setting limits, then take some time to learn how you can claim some authority in the home. This will take time and practice, and it’s best if you get professional support to examine why this became your parenting style and get the help you need to turn it around.

Getting help

Family dynamics are a contributor to eating disorders. The more you can identify and understand how your family dynamics are affecting your child, the better your chances of helping them recover. This is hard, deep work, but it is the area in which parents can have the greatest impact. Parents who work on themselves and their family dynamics are more likely to create an environment that fosters 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 Power of Showing Up

The Power of Showing Up, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Helps you understand the nurturing role of parents and how it supports mental and physical health.

Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld

Learn how parents can maintain authority in kids’ lives and improve their mental health.

Free eBook: What Kids Want Parents to Know About 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.

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