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Family Dynamics and Eating Disorders


Families coping with a member who has an eating disorder tend to exhibit certain dynamics that differ from other family systems.

And though pointing a finger at the family structure as the cause for an eating disorder isn't helpful, it is useful to understand how the family system contributes to or perpetuates the disease process.


According to psychology experts at Vanderbilt University, families that include excessive conflict – or that lean heavily toward conflict avoidance – may be breeding grounds for control issues. A person who suffers physical abuse or constant verbal or emotional conflict may find solace through an eating disorder in which behavior and outcomes can be controlled.


Enmeshment happens when a child is unclear about boundaries in the parent-child relationship. Families that exhibit enmeshment may also enable eating disorders to develop, as children can develop control issues around food to develop their own "rules" about what is or isn't appropriate. Because enmeshment hinders separation between family members, food can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with loneliness or isolation.


A third characteristic of families with eating disorders is rigidity, in which families have a strong need to maintain the status quo. This prevents natural change from occurring and, when it does, it is usually met with conflict. To avoid this conflict, the individual with eating disorder tendencies can use food behaviors to maintain a sense of normalcy or routine.

Creating Support

Family dynamics that relate to eating disorders don't have to be negative, however. Members should learn to stop labeling foods as "good" or "bad," and they should also be aware of how best to support a member who has disordered eating habits. Simple changes, like developing awareness about the disorder, communicating openly, and dealing with past traumas or conflicts can create a nurturing, healthy environment for all members.

Source: Vanderbilt