Cause and Effect of Eating Disorders on Families

Table of Content

This paper summarizes the research about the cause of eating disorders and how they effect family relationships. The paper will look at four topics sociocultural factors, familial influences, individual risks, and how eating disorders affect family life. When a family is faced with a child who has an eating disorder they often are faced with guilt and denial. A family needs to adjust by communicating and being part of the treatment to help their child. A child needs to be supported and have someone they can talk to easily to overcome this battle.

An eating disorder is a mental illness characterized by abnormal eating patterns. A person with an eating disorder is often unhappy with the weight and shape of their body. There are two main types of eating disorders bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders are caused by sociocultural contributors, familial influences, and individual risk factors. According to Polivy & Herman (2002) Personal experiences that may lead to an eating disorder in the future include physical abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, and bullying. A child that develops an eating disorder puts parents at risk of developing psychological problems (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). Parents will often face numerous emotions some of which are anger, denial, and guilt before accepting the diagnosis of their child.

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Sociocultural Contributors

Polivy & Herman (2002) article summarizes the cause of eating disorders. According to Polivy & Herman (2002) a society where food is never scarce often has people obsessed with being thin. In a society where food is scarce being round or plump is seen as the idealized body type. Research suggests that ideals are shaped by what is hard for subjects to obtain. If the subject grows up in a society where having food on the table every meal is normal then they are more likely to develop an eating disorder (Polivy & Herman, 2002). Research proves that women are unhappy with the way their body look, and strive by extensive dieting and exercise to look like the women promoted by the media (Izydorczyk & Sitnik-Warchulska, 2018). People are motivated to be as thin as the idealized emaciated physiques we see in the media. The media changes the reality of what thin is because all those people are fake, everything the subject sees is either surgically created or it is photoshopped. Polivy & Herman (2002) used Tiggemann & Pickering (1996 p.202) to conclude that watching tv shows has lead women to be unhappy with their body and motivate them to be as thin as possible.

Women experience the desire to be thin more than men do. Being dissatisfied with a body type is a key contributor to eating disorders. The more the subject hates the way their body looks the more they will try to change that with different unnatural methods. Women will choose to become anorexic or bulimic to try to change their body that they believe is imperfect. They will purge, use laxatives, control and minimize the intake of their food. Young girls will learn these behaviors from those they are surrounded by such as friends at school. One of the main ways young girls learn these behaviors is from being bullied because they do not fit the social norm (Polivy & Herman, 2002). Research suggests that African men prefer their women to be heavier set whereas Caucasian men prefer women thin. According to Polivy & Herman (2002) the idea that a person has to be as thin as possible has reached African women, race does not affect whether a person will develop an eating disorder because research has shown that African women and Caucasian women that have high incomes are equally likely to strive to be thin.

Familial Influences

Research shows that a family with a history of an eating disorder is neglectful of the subject’s needs (Polivy & Herman, 2002, Minuchin et al. 1978). Young children who suffer from physical or sexual trauma and lack of parental caring have a higher risk for developing an eating disorder (Polivy & Herman, 2002, Haudek et al. 1999, Neumark-Sztainer et al. 2000). A mother of a young girl influences their child by telling them they need to lose because they may not be as pretty as their friend (Polivy & Herman, 2002, Hill & Franklin 1998, Pike & Rodin 1991). A mother’s influence directly corelates with eating disorders. If a mother is constantly telling her child they need to lose weight or limits their food intake they are at a greater risk to develop an eating disorder. A child that is raised in a dysfunctional family environment due to physical or emotional abuse has a big impact because they strive for control on certain situations that they have no control over which leads them to control their eating behavior.

Individual Risk Factors

Personality traits are a key factor in eating disorders. The personality trait perfectionism has led to eating disorders because a person strives to have a flawless appearance to be accepted by peers (Keel & Forney, 2013). Being bullied about appearance or shape has proven to directly corelate with the development of an eating disorder (Polivy & Herman, 2002). Personality traits such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are related to bulimia nervosa (Polivy & Herman, 2002). According to Copeland et. Al, (2015) No matter what group the children were in the experiment whether it was a bully, victim, or bully-victim they all experienced increased risk for developing an eating disorder. Even the bully had a higher likely hood of developing an eating disorder because to maintain control they have to fit the social norm which is being thin.

Eating disorders have been linked with coping mechanisms because women are lacking other ways to deal with their personal problems (Polivy & Herman, 2002, Troop 1998). A person who suffers from an eating disorder suffers from the lack of internal awareness, which means the subject cannot feel hunger (Polivy & Herman, 2002). A defense mechanism that subjects with eating disorders face is dissociation because they are trying to cope with past or present traumatic experiences they face in their life (Polivy & Herman, 2002). Subjects with eating disorders often face obsessive compulsive disorder. They obsess over how much food they eat, how much they diet, and exercise to achieve the desired body shape and weight (Polivy & Herman, 2002). One study showed that 74% of patients with eating disorders objectify their bodies more than three hours a day. While 42% of the patients objectified their bodies more than hours a day (Polivy & Herman, 2002).

How Eating Disorders Effect Family Life

Research shows that out of all the people in the world who develop eating disorders, 90% of them are women (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). According to Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar (2000) case study based in Canada found that 85% of women in Toronto were not pleased with the way their body looked. Anyone who is around someone who has an eating disorder faces is affected. Parents who have a child who has an eating disorder leaves them vulnerable for psychological risks due to them trying to adjust to the mental illness (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000 & Shapiro, 1983). Parents face numerous emotions when they are trying adjust to a child’s illness some of those are anger, guilt, and denial (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). It is better for the subject if their family is with them through treatment, but studies have shown that most parents are not part of the treatment.

Families will have a harder time adjusting to a child’s eating disorder if they have poor communication skills, lack of problem-solving skills, and control issues (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). In one research parents pointed put how the mother of a child with an eating disorder experienced the emotion confusion first (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). Families are affected by children who have eating disorders in their day to day life because they have to give up their leisure time (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). Parents with a child who has an eating disorder gives up things like going on vacation because they are afraid to leave their child alone in case they do something to harm themselves (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000). Some parents react differently, some immerse themselves in activities to ignore the problem at hand. Other parents put their lives on hold to completely focus on their child and how to help them (Gilbert, Shaw, & Notar, 2000).


The research that Polivy & Herman (2002) pieced together help us better understand what causes an eating disorder. There are individual risks like personality traits such as obsessive -compulsive disorder, familial influences, and sociocultural influences like peers. The interviews that Gilbert, Shaw, and Notar conducted paved the way for new studies to be done on the effects of a family relationship when a family member as an eating disorder. The interviews that were conducted with the mothers gave us emotional insight on how they feel when adjusting to the illness their child faces. The most effective environment for a child with an eating disorder is a family who communicates and who is part of the treatment process.

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Cause and Effect of Eating Disorders on Families. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved from

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