How did my child get an eating disorder?

July 9th, 2015 by

Anger.  Shame.  Disbelief. Receiving the news that your child has an eating disorder can be a very confusing and overwhelming experience. One of the most common questions that parents ask is “How did this happen? Was it my fault?”  It’s important to conceptualize an eating disorder as a “perfect storm,” meaning the perfect combination of biological, psychological, and social factors must fuse together in order to manifest an eating disorder. As a parent, it is important to understand that you did not cause your child’s eating disorder.  There are several factors that may have contributed to the diagnosis.


People who are born with certain genotypes are at heightened risk for the development of an eating disorder. This also means that eating disorders are heritable. Individuals who have had a family member with an eating disorder are 7-12 times more likely to develop one themselves.  While a genetic component can increase a child’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder, other factors are still at play.


While every child is different, there are some similarities of adolescents who are more prone to developing an eating disorder.  Some of these traits include:

  • perfectionism
  • competitiveness
  • sensitivity to reward and punishment,
  • impulsive behavior (predominantly in bulimia nervosa)
  • rigidity (predominantly in anorexia nervosa)

If your child experiences some or all of these traits, they may be more susceptible for developing an eating disorder.


Parents were often blamed as the sole cause of their child’s eating disorder. As a therapist, you sometimes hear a client’s mother describe her husband as “aloof and uninvolved,” whereas the father will describe his wife as “overbearing and too controlling.” Family dynamics are not to blame for a child developing an eating disorder, but by utilizing family therapy during treatment, the family can become a source of support and empowerment and expedite the recovery process.

Sociocultural Ideals

Technology and social media have increased the pressure of adhering to a certain “acceptable” body type or appearance. Now more than ever, young women are encouraged to take videos and pictures of themselves to post online and often receive feedback from people they know, and often, people they don’t.

Ultimately, it does not matter why a child develops an eating disorder.  The most important step is identifying that there is a problem and seeking professional help as soon as you begin to notice physical, mental, and/or behavioral changes.  Understanding the etiology will not stop your child’s destructive behaviors, but working with a knowledgeable doctor, nutritionist, and a family counselor can give you your vibrant and healthy child back.

Sara Sharnoff Chesley is an in-home eating disorder therapist in Charleston, SC.  For more information, contact her at