Saturday, December 01, 2007

Mom's off the hook, Dad's on the hot seat

For the last 60 years or so, parents have been blamed for their children's eating disorders. Doctors have believed, and said, that anorexia and bulimia are caused by overcontrolling parents, by abusive parents, by sexual trauma, by inattentive parents, by cold parents, hypercritical parents. New research on the biology of eating disorders has slowly begun to offer an alternative to the blame game--a combination of genetics, biology, and environment is probably responsible for eating disorders, or so goes the latest thinking. (Though some folks clearly have some catching up to do on this score.)

Now a study from Australia points the finger once more at parents--specifically fathers, who are charged with contributing to a child's anorexia when they exert too much control. Mothers, on the other hand, played no apparent role.

I haven't read the original study, but the article reporting it makes me wonder how, exactly, this data was gathered. Reading between the lines, it seems the descriptions of the paternal relationships were reported by the teens with anorexia. Well, they'd have to be, wouldn't they?

Anyone who's parented a teen with anorexia knows that someone in the grip of an eating disorder may reflect a lot of anger toward parents, especially if those parents are insisting that the teen eat. It's really not the teen talking but the disease, which famously warps perceptions and behaviors.

While I'm sure there are overcontrolling fathers out there who contribute to their child's unhappiness in various ways, I'm a little leery of this kind of thing being reported as fact in a scientific study--and of what may come of it down the line.

As Daniel Le Grange once pointed out to me, by the time families come in for help with a teen's eating disorder, they tend to look pretty overcontrolling, because they're terrified at their child's behavior and frightened for her/his health and life. So even if the observations are made by someone outside the family, I wonder how meaningful observations made in a time of family crisis really are when thinking about causation.

God knows we need more studies about anorexia and bulimia--the lack of them is in part responsible for the dreadful lack of effective treatment options. I just wonder if this is the best use of research dollars. Wouldn't the money and time be better spent looking at ways to help teens recover rather than blaming their parents?

Um, just a thought.


Anonymous said...

I have a copy of the whole study if you are interested in reading it.

Shoot me an email at

Harriet said...

Hi Fat Gal,

I just tried to email you but it bounced.

I'd love a copy of the study--you can email me directly at hnbrown at tds dot net.


Anonymous said...

I agree. the blame game can offer new perspectives into how to prevent these eating disorders, but maybe some of the money/time can be spent figuring out effective treatments. lets fix this problem, it's already been diagnosed anyways.

Harriet said...

Actually, there is no known way to prevent eating disorders. Giving kids information on the dangers of e.d.s, for instance, can actually trigger the illness. So it's really a waste of time all around to focus on blaming.

vesta44 said...

I've always thought that placing blame never solved anything. Once something has happened, it doesn't really matter what caused it, what matters is how to fix it and make it better. The energy spent on placing/shifting blame would much better be spent on helping people get better.