A student recently asked a question accompanied by an image from there Psychology, Module 242 class.
This psychology student asked, “What causes eating disorders? It’s for my 242 class. Here’s question. PS I have one. ”
The answer is B) people with anorexia nervosa often come from families that are high achieving and competitive.
The rest of this article will look at scientific research and summarize the overall consensus. In particular we will be looking at these two articles:
- Contribution of social and family factors in anorexia nervosa
- Causes of Eating Disorders – Family Influences – Eating Disorders
For more information, watch this video here where I talk about the common factors in people who have anorexia:
People With Anorexia Nervosa Often Can Come From Any Family
First of all, let’s be clear about anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder can come from any family.
Education Level Doesn’t Matter:
Families that have educational opportunities can have children with anorexia. Likewise, families that are poor and don’t have access to educational opportunities can also have a child with anorexia nervosa.
This is because our culture has an impossible body size ideal. For example, if you look at media images, something like 95% of body images seen on movies, social media, the internet, and on television are of thin people.
While 60% of the population is overweight, the media only reflects 5% of the thin and muscular body sizes.
Whether you are rich or poor doesn’t matter, you will see these images and they will affect you, and young women especially.
Finances Don’t Matter:
Anorexia is most easily as understood as being ‘too thin’ or ‘not eating enough’.
You might think that not having money and less ability to buy food could lead to someone being too thin or not eating enough. However, anorexia is much more than simply not eating enough or being too thin.
It’s true that not having access to food can lead to malnourished children who are too skinny, anorexia also includes a host of symptoms unrelated to being too thin.
For example, a child who is malnourished will generally speaking eat anything! However, a person with anorexia will refuse to eat most things. Or, if a person with anorexia does eat, they might need to have very precise measurements with their food.
Oftentimes a person with anorexia will feel anxious around food, or feel that they need to control their food intake. If a person with anorexia nervosa eats a meal, often they will feel a strong urge to exercise and burn off any calories they ate.
Care About Physical Appearance Way Too Much:
People with anorexia nervosa are obsessed about their physical appearance and weight. They may weigh themselves on the scale 3x a day and skip dinner if their weight goes up at any point during the day.
A person with anorexia will look in the mirror and see every flaw about their body. They think they are horribly ugly and need to lose weight. This is because a person with anorexia nervosa has a distorted and negative body image.
A person with anorexia nervosa will think they must look like the thinnest of celebrities. However, even once a person with anorexia is incredibly thin, they continue trying to lose weight and can even die. About 5% of people with anorexia die.
People With Anorexia Nervosa Come From Families That Are Competitive And High Achieving
Research from ‘Causes of Eating Disorders’ notes that people with anorexia have families that are perfectionistic and strict. They might overly focus on success. Family members might ignore a child’s personal boundaries and only focus on external achievements like in getting good grades or sports.
Many children in these environments will try to live up to the impossible expectations of their family by being extremely hard working, rigid and by being thin and attractive – but internally they may hate themselves.
Since a child cannot live up to their parent’s overly harsh standards, some children will turn to controlling food.
People With Anorexia Nervosa Also May Have Parents Who Are ‘Enmeshed’ Parents
Oftentimes parents who are strict and high achieving can be ‘enmeshed’ with their children.
Enmeshed is a type of parent behavior that can be summed as an unhealthy emotional boundary. This is where the parent or parents are too dependent, reliant and emotionally intimate with their child.
In this type of relationship, the child and adult cannot exist separately. The term helicopter parent, refers to this type of relationship as well. A helicopter parent will hover around their child at all times.
For example, a helicopter parent will help their child study, go to practices, and even hang out with their child’s friends. The parent gets their identity from their child and lives vicariously through the child.
The link between high achievement and enmeshment is strong. A parent who is enmeshed will try to achieve success through their child. They may feel that they need to succeed as a successful parent, and to be a successful parent their child has to get straight A’s.
Eventually this type of relationship hurts the child. The child will naturally start to grow-up. Eventually the child leaves for college, or simply wants to be by themselves. This can cause the parent anxiety and may manipulate the child into staying close to the parent.
The child may start to turn to food in order to get control. Since the child cannot be apart from their parent, the child may start to control food. A child may start to stop eating food, as a way to be in control of their relationship with food. Over time, this can develop into anorexia nervosa.
People With Anorexia Nervosa Also Come From Families That …
In addition to coming from families that are high achieving and competitive, here are other family factors that contribute anorexia nervosa:
- Lost a family member
- Abused (⅓ have sexual abuse)
- Low self-esteem, feelings of shame, negative attitudes toward their body and opposite sex
In the study, “Contribution of social and family factors in anorexia nervosa”, Dr. Zoupa writes that “Study results show that anorectic children come from families that have lost a member, they have been abused. Respective studies reach the conclusion that the 1/3 of the anorectic patients have been sexual abused during childhood and they seem to have common characteristics with sexual abused victims, like low self-esteem, feelings of shame and a negative attitude towards their body and the opposite sex.”
There are many different biological, genetic and personality factors that come into play for a person who develops anorexia nervosa.
The primary family factor is improper family boundaries – either in the form of being too enmeshed or abusive.