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Eating Disorders: Like Mother, Like Daughter?

By Jane St. Clair

More than 40 percent of girls in grades one to three wish they were thinner, and 46 percent of 9- to 11-year-old girls are dieting to lose weight. Many of these girls didn’t learn this behavior on their own – many learned it from watching their mother live with an eating disorder.

Children’s eating patterns are influenced by their parents, the media and their peer groups. All three convey the importance of being thin, but parental role modeling is very important to children. In one study, a researcher asked 500 8-year-old children questions about their mother’s self-image. The youngsters whose mothers were constantly dieting tended to restrain their own eating and felt encouraged to be thin themselves, although their body dissatisfaction levels were normal.

The influence of a dieting mother was greater on daughters than sons. If a mother is dissatisfied with her body, the daughter probably is dissatisfied with her body too. If a mother is dieting and otherwise restraining her food intake, her daughter will follow suit.

The influence of a dieting mother was greater on daughters than sons. If a mother is dissatisfied with her body, the daughter probably is dissatisfied with her body too. If a mother is dieting and otherwise restraining her food intake, her daughter will follow suit.

Effects of Eating Disorders on Mothers

Nearly 10 million American women suffer from eating disorders. These might be anorexia, a form of self-starvation; bulimia, purging by self-induced vomiting; exercise bulimia, over-exercising to burn off calories; binge eating disorder; or non-specified eating disorder. A non-specified eating disorder is often an elaborate individualized regime of eating only certain foods prepared in certain ways at certain times of the day.

Although many women with eating disorders stop menstruating and suffer from infertility, many more become mothers. The current research on children of mothers with eating disorders is not as complete or reliable as the research on children of alcoholics and drug addicts. Nevertheless, there is evidence that children of women with eating disorders are more at risk for eating disorders themselves, and are more concerned about their weight and appearances even at early ages.

Mothers with eating disorders tend to go into remission while they are pregnant. However, about half relapse within a year of giving birth. Those who relapse are less likely to breast-feed their babies, and are more likely to feed on schedule rather than on demand. They may even have problems feeding their babies.

One study found that, while mothers with eating disorders can be playful and appropriate with their babies at other times of the day, they act negative during feedings. Mealtimes are often full of conflicts and unrealistic expectations of infants, and mothers with an eating disorder tend to put their babies at risk for malnourishment. They are also more likely to use food as a reward or in other non-nutritive ways.

Not Just Genetic

Although there may be a genetic component to eating disorders, scientists believe that the disorders develop within certain family systems. These families tend to have unspoken rules that constrain openness, communication and understanding. Such rules might be not talking about your feelings, not talking about anything that makes family members uncomfortable and not being direct.

Since eating disorders are associated with perfectionism, an inability to express emotion, self-control and even obsessive-compulsive disorders, mothers with eating disorders tend to create constraining atmospheres and be overly concerned with food issues. Their children usually become worried about their weights, body shapes and diets by the time they are 10 years old, and are more at risk for eating disorders, even when their mothers are in remission.

Having a mother with an eating disorder is not the most important risk factor that determines if a child will develop one too. Direct verbal criticism and teasing from parents and siblings about a child’s weight and body size, and about how much he or she eats puts a child at risk for an eating disorder more than anything else.

For this reason, no parent should ever actively tease or criticize a child’s body shape or weight. Experts on eating disorders advise all families to have regular meals together. This acts as a preventative not only for eating disorders, but also for becoming overweight. Have the entire family eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise together – don’t single out one person in the family for dieting.

If you think your child has an eating disorder, seek professional treatment immediately.



 
© 2013 Teen Eating Disorders | Last Updated: Mar 09, 2013
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