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Eating Disorder and the Family 

Eating disorder in the family environment

Many therapists who work with eating disordered individuals seem to believe that families may play a critical role in its development. Studies have found that as many as half of the families of people with eating disorders have a long history of emphasizing the importance of thinness, physical appearance, and dieting.  Frequently, the mothers in these families are more likely to diet themselves and to be relatively perfectionistic in their thinking compared to other mother's and families.  It is believed that abnormal interactions and communications within the family may set the stage for an eating disorder.  Family systems theorists suggest that families of people with eating disorders are relatively dysfunctional families and that the eating disordered individuals are simply a reflection of the larger problems within the family.  Salvador Minuchin, who is an influential family therapist believes that what he calls an enmeshed family pattern often leads to eating disorders. 


Eating disorders in the enmeshed family system: 

Theorists who believe that eating disorders are a result of an enmeshed family system conclude that family members are “overinvolved” in each other's affairs and the details of their lives.  These enmeshed families can be affectionate and loyal but they may also be clingy and foster dependency.  Frequently, parents are too involved in the lives of their children, not allowing the children an opportunity for independence and individuality.  Minuchin argued that adolescence is an especially difficult time for these families as a teenager begins to push for independence, and becomes threatening to the family's apparent harmony and closeness.  He suggested that the family may subtly force the child to take on a "sick" role, developing an eating disorder or some other illness.  The child's eating disorder enables the family to maintain its appearance of harmony with the sick child needing the family and family members rallying around to protect her. 

There have been case studies that have supported that such family systems explanations may be relevant to individuals who develop eating disorders.  However, empirical studies have failed to show that particular family patterns consistently set the stage for the development of eating disorders.  In fact, it has been found that families with such eating disorders as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa vary widely.

Some information from Ronald J. Comer’s Abnormal Psychology

Additional information by Paul Susic MA Licensed Psychologist Ph.D Candidate 

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