Parenting Concerns and Eating Disorders
By: Jillian Catalano
West Virginia University
Mothers with an eating disorder or history of an eating disorder often face challenges related to parenting and want more resources in this area. However, it is important to note that navigating parenting concerns associated with eating disorders is often under-studied and over-generalized. There has been limited research regarding the associations of eating disorders with parenting. There are other factors that play a role in parenting behaviors, but they too, have been overlooked. While every mother’s experience and relationship with their child is different, common parenting concerns have been suggested. Treatment and intervention can often assist in the parenting process, but a better understanding of a mother’s situation can help determine the best approach to seeking those resources.
A common misconception about eating disorders is that they can inhibit a woman’s ability to conceive. However, research suggests that anorexia nervosa (AN) and other eating disorders may not always hinder a woman’s fertility. However, eating disorders can cause a variety of physical and emotional challenges postpartum. Pregnancy has been associated with remission for some eating disorders but eating disorder symptoms can return after childbirth. Once a child is born, the desire to lose weight may reintroduce body image concerns, factoring into a mother’s relapse.
As a child continues to grow, a mother with an eating disorder or history of an eating disorder may emphasize the child’s well-being. These mothers have had their own body image concerns, and may try to instill body positivity or neutrality in their child’s mind. In doing so, they work alongside their child to reject society’s narrow belief of the “perfect” body. Mothers hope these behaviors can encourage their child to feel comfortable in their own skin regardless of their view of their own body. As a result of their history with eating disorders, mothers pay close attention to eating disorder signs within their children. These experiences allow mothers to detect symptoms early and guide their children to seek help.
However, there are times where this focus on a child’s well-being may lead to an overemphasis on feeding practices. Because of the mother’s history with body image concerns and eating struggles, they may feel that their child is eating too much or too often. This maternal apprehension may cause increased risk of food restrictions. Studies suggest that mothers may limit a child’s food intake, or use food as means of reward or affection. There can also be an increased focus on a child’s size and weight. Emotional eating is also a concern, as stressful events and emotional difficulties can trigger these behaviors.
For mothers with an eating disorder history, intergenerational transmission is a valid concern. Women often seek treatment for their eating disorder as a result of these concerns. While there has been some research on the genetic influence on eating disorder development, there are other factors that come in to play. A child’s environment and upbringing can also trigger that genetic predisposition for an eating disorder. Raising a child in a household that emphasizes on treatment and intervention may decrease the risk of an eating disorder. Similarly, valuing support and coming together in the face of adversity is also beneficial for eating disorder prevention. Ultimately, a mother’s eating disorder does not directly predict the development of an eating disorder in a child.
While every woman’s journey to motherhood and approach to parenting is different, studies suggest that eating disorders can have an association with parenting, either positive or negative. In cases where a mother has an eating or history of an eating disorder, the possibility of a child developing an eating disorder may increase. However, environmental factors, such as emphasizing treatment and intervention can change the trajectory of eating disorder development. The associations of eating disorders with parenting methods are complex and continue to evolve through further research.
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Claydon, E. et al. (2016). Parental reflective functioning among mothers with eating disorder symptomology. Eating Behaviors, 23, 141–144. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.09.002
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