Children with eating disorder - which part does the family play?

Common meals and a positive familiar atmosphere are beneficial for a healthy eating behavior with children. Living and growing up in a family continues to define more than ever the personal and social development of adolescents.

Foto: istock/kzenon

Due to partly close and long-term relationships over different generations, the family plays a decisive role in education and socialization of children and teenagers. Different studies have already demonstrated that familial influences can also have negative effects on the behaviors and experiences of children and adolescents.  For example, the family also plays an important role in developing and maintaining eating disorders and obesity.

What contributes to eating disorders in children?

A recently published scientific review by Anne Tetzlaff, psychologist and scientist at the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) AdiposityDiseases, deals with the family influences on binge eating in childhood and adolescence. If binges show certain behavioral characteristics and mean increased suffering, they can lead to the diagnosis of a Binge-Eating-Disorder (BED). If compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, are present, the diagnosis could be bulimia (bulimia nervosa). Due to these eating disorders patients develop fears about their figure, depressions, anxiety, psychosocial problems and on the long run overweight and finally obesity.

Also various familiar factors have an impact on eating disorders. For example: the parents themselves have psychic problems like depressions, or they are troubled by unemployment. This can influence the eating behavior of their children.

A positive family life is important for health.

Even general behavior patterns within the family are associated with eating disorders in children. In particular, the frequency and atmosphere of the family’s joint meals, or eating and dieting behaviors of the parents are influencing the children´s behavior. Moreover, the relationship between parents and children is an important factor for the mental balance of sons and daughters. If the child has an instable relationship to the parents or father and mother are often arguing, the general communication and interaction at home is rather poor. Then the children and teenagers suffer more often from binge eating. “It is also striking,” Anne Tetzlaff emphasizes “that parents often make negative comments about the character or the weight of their children or stigmatize them due to their overweight.  This again leads to binge eating. This has already been proved in longitudinal studies, and is considered as an important risk factor.

The featured family influences on eating disorders in children and adolescents emphasize, that a harmonious, positive and close relationship of parents and children is of particular importance for the offspring’s health. To create this atmosphere is not always easy, especially in a time of patchwork families and today’s daily routines. But even small changes, such as regular and frequent family meals or an appreciative interaction with each other can help to reduce risk factors of eating disorders. If families need assistance, therapy measures for families may be an option. In addition, the IFB offered free coaching program led by Prof. Dr. Anja Hilbert. Adolescents aged 12 to 20 years who suffer from binge eating could participate. At IFB AdiposityDiseases eating disorders are being investigated in the field ‘behavioral medicine’; the aim is to develop improved therapies.

* Source: Tetzlaff A.  Hilbert A. „Zur Rolle der Familie bei Essanfällen im Kindes- und Jugendalter“. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy 2014 ( 42 ) : 1 ; S. 61-70 .

Martin Liborak