Mothers, Daughters, and Eating Disorders

By Chelsea Fielder-Jenks, M.A., LPC |

girls-377661_640The mother-daughter relationship is a powerful one. When considering biological, psychological, and social risk factors for the development of disordered eating behaviors, it is a primary relationship that is often explored in research and treatment.

Many experts hypothesize that mothers may impact their daughter’s eating disorder by modeling eating behaviors and thoughts, setting relationship boundaries, or by genetically predisposing their child to an eating disorder.

Furthermore, research has indicated the following:

It is important to note that these findings are correlational in nature and therefore do not constitute causation. In fact, there is no single cause of an eating disorder; rather, it is likely a combination and transaction of multiple biological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of an eating disorder.

The correlations identified below are just a few of the biological, psychological, and social risk factors that may be involved in eating disorders.

    • Mothers act as models for their children’s thoughts and behaviors. This is based on the notion that, as mothers raise their child, the child will naturally adopt their mother’s thoughts or behaviors; in other words, “model” after their mothers. These include eating related thoughts and behaviors.
    • Mothers who talk more frequently about their own weight, shape, or size are more likely to have daughters with lower self-worth and greater feelings of depression. Conversations focused on healthful eating are protective against disordered eating behaviors.
    • When compared to mothers of girls with no disordered eating behaviors, mothers of daughters with disordered eating behaviors are more likely to have disordered eating habits and attitudes and are more likely to be critical of their daughters’ weight and appearance.


  • Mothers who make more frequent comments about weight are more likely to have daughters who use extreme weight control behaviors (such as using diet pills, self-induced vomiting, using laxatives and/or diuretics) and binge eat.
  • Daughters of mothers who report feeling a lack of control over their daughter’s activities are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and engage in restrictive eating behaviors.
  • When mothers and daughters find it important that their relationship lack boundaries (i.e., are enmeshed), daughters are more likely to engage in restrictive eating behaviors.
  • Daughters are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies when their mother feels that they do not have a right to their own autonomy as well as if their mother finds it important that their relationship lack boundaries.
  • 50-80% of eating disorder risk is due to genetic effects. Eating disorder symptoms (e.g., body dissatisfaction, purging, binge eating) tend to run in families.
  • The parents, children, and siblings of individuals with anorexia are eleven times more likely to have anorexia themselves and six times more likely to have some disordered eating behaviors. This is likely due to both genes and the modeling of eating disordered behaviors.


Non-blaming Acceptance of the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Eating Disorders

This information is not meant to place blame on mothers of daughters with eating disorders. Rather, it is intended to help mothers and daughters become more aware of the risks associated with eating disorders. This awareness can, in turn, foster acceptance of any risks that are identified within the relationship.

If mothers and daughters can accept these potential risks, they can be addressed and, with willingness from both mother and daughter, changed so that mother, daughter, and their relationship can become healthier and thrive.

This non-blaming acceptance of the mother-daughter relationship in the development and maintenance of eating disorders is an important first step in recovery.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with the mother/daughter relationship and eating disorders? What about father / daughter relationships? What do you think about the overall genetic and environmental influences on eating disorders – is it a combination of nurture and nature?


  1. Bauer, K.W., Bucchianeri, M.M., Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Mother-reported parental weight talk and adolescent girls’ emotional health, weight control attempts, and disordered eating behaviors. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1: 45, doi:10.1186/2050-2974-1-45
  2. Berge, J.M., MacLehose, R., Loth, K.A., Eisenberg, M., Bucchianeri, M.M., Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Parent Conversations About Healthful Eating and Weight: Associations With Adolescent Disordered Eating Behaviors. JAMA Pediatrics, 167, 746-753. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.78.
  3. Bulik, C.M. (2007). Genetic risk factor for eating disorders. Eating Disorders Review.
  4. Cooper, P.J., Whelan, E., Woolgar, M., Morrell, J., & Murray, L. (2004). Association between childhood feeding problems and maternal eating disorder: role of the family environment. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 184, 210-215.
  5. Ogden, J., & Steward, J. (2000). The role of the mother-daughter relationship in explaining weight concern. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 28(1), 78-83.
  6. Pike, K. M. & Rodin, J. (1991) Mothers, daughters, and disordered eating. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 198-204.
  7. Strober, M., Freeman, R. Lampert, C., Diamond, J., and Kaye, W. (2000). Controlled family study of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: evidence of shared liability and transmission of partial syndromes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 393-401.

Chelsea Fielder-JenksChelsea Fielder-Jenks is a designated Expert Writer on Eating Disorder Hope.  Her well researched and thoughtful pieces have been helpful to many of our visitors.  We hope you will read through some of her other interesting pieces: Binge Eating Disorder & AnxietyBulimia in Athletes,  The Pressure to Compete.