By: Trixie Hennessey
Q: My husband and I have two daughters. Why did one end up with an eating disorder?
A: Two girls grow up together in the same household as sisters; one goes on to develop an eating disorder while the other does not. In the aftermath, their family struggles to understand what may have led to the onset of this complex illness for one of their own. In quiet moments, parents worry that they may have contributed to their child’s eating disorder; they carry feelings of guilt and shame, sensing the unspoken judgment of others who lack sufficient understanding or the empathy to meet them in their anguish. As a therapist, these questions become important when feelings of hopelessness, shame, and despair become debilitating for parents and undermine their capacity for self-compassion and confident, empathic care-taking.
Going back to our question of why one daughter ended up with an eating disorder and the other did not, we should state from the beginning that parents do not cause eating disorders in their children. Shared genes and parenting styles do not equal shared destinies for children as far as their mental health is concerned. In our example, each daughter has innumerable experiences that confer resilience or impose risk. Each daughter has shared experiences that lead to very different outcomes based on the salience of the experience to each individual.
For example, your two daughters might share a particularly traumatic event but experience it in vastly different ways, as each person focuses on particular features while practically ignoring the other elements that are less meaningful to them. As a result, one daughter may experience long-lasting emotional disturbance while the other daughter, although emotionally impacted, appears to demonstrate greater resilience and adaptability. This scenario plays out in uncounted ways large and small, with each individual making sense of their experiences based on their unique temperament and perspective. Therapists say that trauma does not live in the event, but rather resides in the central nervous system of the person experiencing the traumatic event. Your daughters may perceive an event in radically different way, with one experiencing terror while the other has a fearful experience that does not linger.
Innumerable factors contribute to the early onset of eating disorders, but it is next to impossible to know in advance what those precipitating and perpetuating factors will be for any given individual. An experience of adversity may build resilience in one individual while at the same time causing hardship for another individual, making it difficult in your case to establish what may have caused one daughter to manifest an eating disorder while the other daughter with somewhat different risk and resilience factors did not. Some individuals experience emotional wounds more deeply, have less shame resilience, or tend to be more of a perfectionist. Some are more vulnerable to the perceived judgments of others, and find themselves in greater need of social acceptance. Making predictions about who might be a risk for developing an eating disorder is nearly impossible for these reasons.
After answering your question, I want to leave you with the thought that it is not as important to understand how an eating disorder develops as it is to understand how to support your loved one through an eating disorder. I would invite you to connect to community supports such as The Looking Glass Foundation or Kelty Mental Health to see what services are available to you and your daughters. Parents often share that being involved in their loved one’s treatment helps them feel more equipped to deal with the challenges that inevitably arise.
Trixie holds a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of British Columbia- Okanagan, where she also completed post-Masters training in Neurosequential Therapy. Trixie is the Looking Glass Foundation's Program Manager and has been a part of our team since 2011. She is also a Therapeutic Consultant at Optimal Family Wellness. She lives in Vancouver, BC and loves hiking, photography, and being mom to her two children.
Submit your questions about disordered eating, mental health and supporting those around you to email@example.com. Through Q&A With Trixie, she will provide general advice for informational purposes only. For other inquiries and services, please consult directly with a licensed professional.