What Causes Eating Disorders?

This is one of the questions parents ask us all the time.  Whether their child has already been diagnosed with an eating disorder or they are interested in information on preventing an eating disorder, most parents want to know where it starts, what makes one person develop an eating disorder but not another, and most importantly, what they can do to help.  The truth is there is no singular, quantifiable cause or reason why some teens struggle with eating disorders and others do not.  There are however, some factors that may increase the likelihood of a specific person being diagnosed with an eating disorder.  These risk factors range from societal pressures to self image and do not always lead to an eating disorder but they do increase the risk and can be used as warning signs that parents can learn to look for.

Social Warning Signs

The image of perfection most often promoted in the media, magazines, movies, and online has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and whether or not we are “acceptable” in our eyes or the eyes of others.  For adolescents, the pressure to be accepted, to fit in, is already extreme.  When the person they see in the mirror doesn’t match what they have been told is desirable or acceptable, the pressure to change how they look can become all encompassing.  For some, this will lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Biological Warning Signs

Unfortunately, one of the most common things parents should be looking for may be hiding in plain sight.  According to the Alliance for Eating Disorders, 50-80% of a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder may be genetic.  These disorders tend to run in families.  While biological factors can affect males and females, research shows that girls whose mother or sister have now or have ever had Anorexia Nervosa are twelve times more likely to develop this eating disorder and four times as likely to develop Bulimia as their peers without this risk factor.

Psychological Warning Signs

Many people with eating disorders also struggle with other mental health problems.  This means that people who have been diagnosed disorders that are commonly also seen in those with eating disorders have a higher risk of also developing an eating disorder.  Commonly co-morbid mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Interpersonal Warning Signs

Other factors that increase the risk of developing an eating disorder center on certain types of life experiences.  People who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused have a higher risk for eating disorders.  Being bullied, especially if the bully or bullies targeted the person’s weight, size, or other physical characteristics also increases the risk that an eating disorder will develop.   Traumatic events like the death of a family member or a difficult divorce can also increase the risk of developing an eating disorder as part of coping or escaping from the event.

One of the most important things parents can do is provide a mitigating influence when it comes to the messages teens get about how they should look.  Remind boys and girls that the men and women who look like fashion models make up less than 2% of all the women in America.  Make sure the messages being sent inside the home to boys and girls are healthy and encourage acceptance, embrace diversity, and ensure each child feels loved for everything they are, not just how they look.

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