Parents in ED Recovery Seeing ED Signs in Their Child

Woman on shore

There are many factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

These are severe psychiatric illnesses that can result in many dangerous consequences if left untreated and without appropriate interventions.

Thankfully, there is a greater awareness of eating disorders today, and the increase in research about these mental illnesses has resulted in improved understanding and treatment of these diseases.

Understanding Family History

One contributing factor that can help the development of eating disorders is a family history. For example, if you have a parent, sibling, or grandparent that has had an eating disorder, there is an increased risk that you may also develop an eating disorder.

This may be related to the biological component identified in eating disorder development, such as genetic predisposition, neurobiology, hormonal influences and more.

Parents in particular, who have struggled with an eating disorder, may be more likely to contribute to environmental factors that influence eating disorder development in children.

Research has demonstrated that mothers who have or have had an eating disorder may also create abnormal behavioral patterns when feeding their children, such as the use of food for non-nutritive purposes, irregular feeding schedules, and/or detached non-interactive mealtimes, which can contribute to second-generation eating difficulties in children [1,2].

It is important to understand and clarify that eating disorders themselves are not caused by parents, nor are parents somehow at fault if eating disorders do develop in their children.

It is simply helpful to understand the correlation between eating disorders in parents and subsequently, the increased risk for children of parents who have or have had eating disorders.

Establishing and Prioritizing Treatment

As a parent who may have an eating disorder, it can be difficult to prioritize treatment while caring for children and maintaining the various responsibilities involved with running a household.

Woman struggling with Binge Eating DisorderMany parents may postpone treatment for these reasons, or perhaps may feel that they are stable enough to continue with their normal routines without treatment interventions.

However, there are many complex aspects of eating disorders that can remain dormant for years, only to resurface later, particularly during times of transition.

Many of the stressors involved with parenting can be triggering for an individual who may have a history of eating disorder, especially if there are aspects of the condition that have been left untreated.

Child feeding can also bring about many challenging situations for a parent who has struggled with an eating disorder, and awareness about these potential triggers and situations can be helpful for a parent who is also in recovery from an eating disorder.

The most useful thing a parent with a history of an eating disorder can do for themselves and their family is to be sure they are connected to the resources needed for support. It is also helpful to remember that eating disorder treatment does not necessarily mean having to leave your job or your family.

Eating disorder treatment is accessible at the outpatient level of care and may including meeting with a specialized therapist and eating disorder dietitian for maintaining recovery. Keep recovery a priority can be helpful as you raise your own children and support healthy behaviors.

Warning Signs in Children

As a parent with a history of an eating disorder, you may be more sensitive and/or aware of problematic eating behaviors in your kids, body image issues, and more.

It can be alarming to see your child display certain warning signs that may be indicative of a more problematic issue, but it is important to approach these concerns with empathy, compassion, and support.

Observing disordered eating behaviors in your child can also trigger a host of feelings and thoughts about yourself and your past, so be sure to maintain your own support system to help you process what you may be experiencing.

As a parent, the best thing you can do if you observe early warning signs of eating disorders in your children is to seek out help immediately.

Elementary age boyIt may be easy to ignore the situation or even panic with your concerns, but having the support and guidance of specialized professionals can be invaluable. Talk with someone you trust and who can objectively view the situation at hand.

This may be a health care professional, mental health therapist, school counselor, etc. You may feel like you have failed your child; however, this is not the case.

Helping connect your child to the help they need can provide necessary and effective interventions that can significantly improve the overall prognosis [3].

Be sure to stay connected to your own support system through this process to help maintain your eating disorder recovery.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1]: Gucciardi, E., Celasun, N., Ahmad, F., & Stewart, D. E. (2004). Eating Disorders. BMC Women’s Health, 4(Suppl 1), S21.
[2]: Agras WS, Hammer L, McNicholas F. A prospective study of the influence of eating-disordered mothers on their children. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 1999;25:253–262. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-108X(199904)25:3<253::AID-EAT2>3.3.CO;2-Q
[3]: Lowe B, Zipfel S, Buchholz C, Dupont Y, Reas DL, Herzog W. Long-term outcome of anorexia nervosa in a prospective 21-year follow-up study. Psychol Med. 2001;31:881–890. doi: 10.1017/S003329170100407X.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on October 6, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 6, 2017.
Published on