Wednesday 31 July 2013

It is NOT a get-out-of-jail-free card; parents are NOT to blame for their child's eating disorder

There is a lot of debate going on today as a result of my recent Mumsnet guest blog post as to whether or not parents are to blame for their child's eating disorder. Naturally, I state that they are NOT to blame - and no-one, anywhere will convince me otherwise, especially with all the latest neuroscience research coming through showing that anorexia patients' brains appear to be wired up differently from "normal" brains, reinforcing the belief that eating disorders are biological illnesses and not lifestyle choices. But I won't go into all the science here; you can read an excellent article on the subject by clicking this link.

Poor parenting, in some cases, might - and I emphasise the word **might** - be one of the triggers that lead an individual losing weight and which, if predisposed to developing an eating disorder, might lead to anorexia or another eating disorder, just as any "trigger" which causes someone to lose weight might do.

If you read my new book When Anorexia Came To Visit, you will read about families where children lost weight for a number of reasons - from bullying to dieting, illness to over-exercising, or some kind of life trauma or event.

The way I always like to explain it to people outside the world of eating disorders (no-doubt far, far over-simplified) is that "When someone who is pre-disposed to developing an eating disorder loses weight and that weight drops to a very low level, the eating disorder 'kicks in'".

But to say that parents "cause" their child's eating disorder or are to "blame" is appallingly wrong. Just as parents don't "cause" any illness. Okay you might say that passing on genes might "cause" someone to develop a mental illness like an eating disorder (research shows that over 80% of eating disorders are thought to have genetic roots), but we can't be blamed for our genes!

However, an eating disorder like anorexia is one of the few illnesses where society routinely points the finger at the parents. What did the parent do to cause their child to get sick?

And if it's not said to the parents' faces, it's implied by "that look". As parents of children who have been through an eating disorder, many of us will be familiar with "that look". And it immediately makes us feel inadequate and guilty in a way that no other illness would do. Can you imagine getting "that look" if your child was found to have a defective heart, for instance? Ridiculous!

Thankfully, throughout my son's eating disorder, no-one ever said anything to my face. But I got "that look" many times. The first time was from our GP and I've had it many times since, notably the occasion (described in my book Please eat...) when Ben was going crazy outside the hospital while police, security staff and a doctor were trying to get him back inside for cardio tests. As a parent you almost feel compelled to "justify" the reasons why the eating disorder may have developed and your - once immaculately-behaved child is acting in this way - as if to scream: "It wasn't me!!!!"

Many of the parents in When Anorexia Came To Visit describe appalling instances where the finger was being pointed at them by the medical profession.

At best, parents describe being asked what they, as parents, were doing to prevent their child from eating. At worst, the child was checked over for bruising. One girl was asked by a nurse if there was anything she would like to tell her now that her "dad wasn’t present".

When Ben was badly bullied at primary school, a number of years before the eating disorder emerged, we took him for counselling. I was appalled that the counsellor seemed more interested in me and my history. Apparently I had passed my own "anxieties onto Ben" which had, she implied, set Ben up to be bullied.

Ah, how many of us parents have heard the "passing on anxieties" stuff?!

I will end this post with a quote from one of the chapters in my new book:

"I could see the consultant making little notes, concluding that anxiety was the problem in the family and that our son was feeding off this atmosphere. Well of course we were anxious! Our son was behaving strangely, was losing weight and we were sitting in front of a team of mental health professionals. What parents wouldn’t be anxious?!"

1 comment:

  1. I think it's important to remember that everyone's causes for developing an eating disorder is different. No one is to blame for an eating disorder and everyone/ everything has effected it's development and maintenance in some way. My parents weren't to blame for my eating disorder and I don't think they ever felt blame from anyone other than me, despite me telling them over and over they weren't the cause. But to be honest my Mom's eating disorder had a lot to do with the onset of my eating disorder. Although I do not BLAME her I can recognize that and it hurts me that she refuses to. Just a thought, everyone is different, there is no one perfect, clear cut route to developing/ causing an eating disorder.