Eating Disorders

Mothers & Daughters & Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders

Mothers clearly have an impact on their daughter’s eating habits: they model eating behaviors and thoughts about health and dieting, they establish relationship boundaries and even contribute their genes to the possibility of their daughters being genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder.

In many research and treatment studies, this mother-daughter relationship is explored to fully understand the influence it has on the biological, psychological and social risk factors of developing an eating disorder. Research supports the hypothesis that maternal criticism and female identity are associated with eating disorders [1]. While it is believed that 50-80% of eating disorders are due to the effects of genes [2], it was discovered that the daughter of an anorexic mom is eleven times more likely to have anorexia themselves and lead to eating restraint, weight and shape concerns for children as young as 10 [3, 4]. This is believed not just to result because of the genes but also because of the modeling of the eating disorders

Like Mother, Like Daughter

To be clear, it would be incorrect to say that the relationship between a mother and a daughter can directly cause an eating disorder because really, there is no single cause of an eating disorder. We know that eating disorders result through a combination of multiple biological, psychological and social factors. Nevertheless, there is a correlation between the quality of the mother-daughter relationship and the presence of eating disorders in their female children. 

Some mediating factors that may increase the likelihood of developing disordered eating behavior include a mother’s criticism when suggesting the daughter change her body weight and shape, as we know this tends to elicit body dissatisfaction in the daughter. Mothers may consciously or unconsciously make body-related comments related to their specific ideals of appearance, and comparisons to others, which daughters will often internalize. 

While sons are not immune to the body-related criticisms of their mothers, girls tend to be higher on the receiving end of maternal comments regarding body weight and shape and weight loss. In addition, while maternal criticism is also shown to have effects across racial and ethnic groups, it was most saliently linked to eating disorder pathology among individuals from Asian American cultures. 

Mothers as Role Models

Familial pressure and messages around eating, body shape and body size are powerful influencers on the development of eating disorder pathology.  True, adolescent girls who are teased by their moms about their weight may be advised by the same parent to diet at increasingly younger ages. 

A relationship exists between the attitudes about weight that girls develop and how much their mothers talk about their own weight, shape or size. If a mother is constantly talking about their own weight and body shape, they are more likely to have daughters that give in to their own impending battle with self-esteem and depression. 

For this reason, the mental and physical health of mothers largely shapes their influence on their children. Maternal figures can model body dissatisfaction, over-evaluation and disordered eating behaviors for their daughters. Their attitudes about body weight, shape and size are often conveyed through teasing, criticism, shaming, and encouragement to diet, lose weight or to adjust their body shape. Sometimes, the advice may come from a good place but often it only serves to put pressure on the girl to aspire for unhealthy standards of beauty, using whatever means necessary.

What could be Different?

  • Give Up Some Control. Mothers who tend to be controlling often are found to stifle the individual activities and expressions of their children. It is well known that children who feel as though they have little control over their life will seek areas by whatever means necessary where they can exercise control, i.e. disordered eating behavior. 
  • Create Positive Boundaries. When there are no boundaries between mother-daughter relationships, daughters are more likely to engage in restrictive eating behaviors. Be present and consistent with your attention when she seeks your advice, but allow her the freedom to figure things out on her own, and to create an identity that is not centered around your happiness. 
  • Refrain from Criticism, and instead teach body-positive messages. Whether you believe that your daughter is “too skinny” or “too full-figured”, your child is likely already all too aware of their body shape, and does not need the added shame messaging from another important person in their life. Teaching body positive messaging does not mean accepting unhealthy practices, but it does require coming from a place of empathy and understanding, and empowering your daughter to make changes, not forcing or guilting them to. 
  • Take Care of Yourself. A child’s transition from childhood to teenage years can be difficult on a parent, as they no longer need you in the same way. Reinvest some of that energy onto yourself, as perhaps it is time to address your own relationship with eating and body image, lest you pass on any questionable practices to the next generation. 

The relationship between a mother and daughter is without a doubt influential when it comes to the development of eating disorders. For this reason, many treatment programs focus on family involvement in order to heal some of the hurts that stem from these important relationships. 

Establishing guidelines and boundaries are necessary so that the relationship does not serve to hurt either of the two. It may be time to check in with yourself and notice how the messages you are sending to your daughter impacts them, and see if there are areas for improvement within yourself. 

Sources:

[1] Yu, K., & Perez, M. (2019, February 25). The Association Between Maternal Criticism and Body Dissatisfaction on Disordered Eating Pathology Across Racial and Ethnic Groups. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000277

[2] Trace, S. E., Baker, J. H., Peñas-Lledó, E., & Bulik, C. M. (2013). The genetics of eating disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9, 589-620.

[3] Strober, M., et al., Controlled family study of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: evidence of shared liability and transmission of partial syndromes. Am J Psychiatry, 2000. 157(3): p. 393-401.

[4] Stein A, Woolley H, Cooper S, Winterbottom J, Fairburn CG, Cortina-Borja M. Eating habits and attitudes among 10-year-old children of mothers with eating disorders: longitudinal study. Br J Psychiatry. 2006;189:324–329. 

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